The Gators’ lacrosse season came to an end Saturday afternoon when they were defeated by James Madison 11-8 in the NCAA Quarterfinals.
Despite the disappointing finish, the 2018 season was filled with many high points for Florida. The team won 17 games, tied for the third-best since the program’s inception in 2010, and tied for the second-best since UF joined the Big East in 2015.
The Gators captured their fourth-consecutive Big East title. They have won every Big East tournament since they joined the conference. UF’s streak of 33-straight conference victories is still active, and it won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2015.
Florida entered the season with high expectations, as the team was unanimously picked during the preseason to defend its conference championship. It lived up to those expectations and then some.
UF started the season with a victory, shutting down a ranked Colorado team in its season opener, 16-9. After that, the No. 1 team in the country, Maryland, came to town. The Gators played the Terrapins tougher than they had in previous matchups, and despite losing the game 16-14, the team showed it could compete with the best in the nation.
That was put to the test in the following game against Loyola on February 25. The Greyhounds led by two goals with under three minutes left in the game, but late goals from junior Lindsey Ronbeck and rising star sophomore Madisyn Kittell sent the contest into overtime. Senior Shayna Pirreca saved the day, scoring an early goal in the extra period to end the game.
It was one of many memorable performances from the senior attacker, who is one of only six players in the history of the program to reach 200 career points. She was second on the team in scoring with 59 goals (Ronbeck, 65). Over the past two seasons, she had a scoring streak of 40 games that ended in her final match with the team on Saturday.
Florida earned two wins against top-10 teams this season, first defeating No. 3 North Carolina in Chapel Hill 17-10 on March 3. Pirreca led the way in that game, scoring six goals in the victory.
Ten days later, the team defeated No. 10 Navy on its home field, erasing a first-half, eight-goal deficit to win 19-16. However, the come-from-behind victory didn’t come without a cost.
Ronbeck left the field with a knee injury early on and didn’t return for 18 days. The Gators’ offense sputtered with the star attacker's absence.
The team survived a close call against Vanderbilt in Nashville on March 18, eking out a one-goal victory against the Commodores, followed by a home loss to Towson. It scored a then-season low 11 goals in both games.
But Ronbeck's return on March 31 against UConn proved to be the catalyst for UF. The team went on a tear through Big East play, running the table in its regular-season conference schedule for the third-straight season. With the addition of Ronbeck, the Florida scoring attack kept opposing goalkeepers busy, averaging 18.9 goals per game down the stretch.
UF demonstrated the immense gap between itself and the rest of its conference, and this was best illustrated in its April 14 game against Marquette. The Golden Eagles entered the game as the only other undefeated team in Big East play. The Gators beat them 18-6.
After clinching the regular season title against Denver 18-13 on April 21 in the midst of snow flurries in the Mile High City, Florida turned its attention to the Big East Tournament.
In the conference semifinals, UF waltzed past Marquette for the second time, winning by a 19-8 clip this time around. Ronbeck’s eight goals set a tournament record for goals in a game.
The Gators faced Denver again in the conference championship game, but this time in the friendly confines of Donald R. Dizney Stadium. UF rode home-field advantage and won 18-6 to take the conference trophy back to Gainesville once again.
In the NCAA Tournament, the team exorcised its first-game demons, defeating Colorado again, 13-9, before eventually falling to James Madison.
Looking ahead to 2019, the future of Florida lacrosse appears bright. Though it loses Pirreca and defensive leader Aniya Flanagan, it returns Ronbeck, whose 65 goals was tied for 19th-best in Division I lacrosse. It also returns midfielder Sydney Pirreca – the team’s third-leading scorer – and promising freshman offensive players Grace Haus and Shannon Kavanagh. Defensive starters Cara Trombetta, Sabrina Cristodero and goalie Haley Hicklen will all be on the team next year as well.
UF will also play its first season in the American Athletic Conference in 2019.
While 2018 didn’t end with the team hoisting the NCAA Championship trophy in Stony Brook, New York, it showed a lot of promise. Heading into her tenth year with the program, coach Amanda O’Leary will look to build on this season’s successes while correcting the problems that landed the team short of its ultimate goal.
You can follow Tyler Nettuno on Twitter @TylerNettuno or contact him at email@example.com.