As the Florida lacrosse team walked off the field on Jan. 14 in Bradenton, it had a lot to be proud of.
It turned a 19-8 defeat against the U.S. National Team a year earlier into a 20-19 battle, where two goals within the last five minutes helped propel the U.S. to a hard-fought win.
But when coach Amanda O’Leary met with reporters on Monday, it wasn’t just her team’s performance that she praised.
It was how her team responded to being “thrown into the fire” against some of the best lacrosse players in the country.
Even more than that, it was how the freshmen handled it.
Midfielder Brianna Harris scored a goal against the U.S., attacker Madisyn Kittell received significant playing time and defender Cara Trombetta was the only freshman to earn a start.
“We’re seeing that freshman class really come along,” O’Leary said. “They’re really going to be a big part of our success this season and how we develop throughout the season.”
But as a new class is coming in, an older one is gearing up for its final season at Florida.
Most of the senior class got either extensive playing time as freshmen or got the start right away, something O’Leary hopes to replicate with this year’s class.
And now, four years later, their senior leadership will be immeasurable to the success of the team. The senior class features two of Florida’s top five returning scorers on offense and two of Florida’s all-time leaders in ground balls and caused turnovers.
“A bunch of them came in and started as freshmen, so they knew what we were asking of them really early on,” O’Leary said. “And you can always count on them for their competitiveness, whether it’s drills, singing or dancing. It’s really competitive all around. It’s a competitive class. Great leadership there.”
The impact of the freshmen and the leadership of the seniors will be tested immediately, as the Gators open their season on Saturday against top-ranked defending champion North Carolina.
UNC is one of five top-10 teams Florida will play this season, continuing a trend of more difficult non-conference play since 2012.
The Gators will also face No. 2 Maryland, No. 4 Southern California, No. 5 Syracuse and No. 6 Stony Brook. Florida defeated UNC, Syracuse and Stony Brook last season by a combined score of 34-31.
The only team the Gators couldn’t overcome was Maryland, which they lost to, 14-4.
“We’re getting at it early and often, and I think that’s important for our team, because come conference (play), it really sets us up to be in a good position,” O’Leary said.
“We want to play the best in order to be the best.”
UF freshman attacker Madisyn Kittell.