The first six weeks of the women's lacrosse season were always going to be difficult for the Gators.
“Our motto has always been if you want to be the best, you have to play the best,” head coach Amanda O’Leary said in the preseason.
The Gators are a growing team. It’s a group led by young stars still growing into the college game and new pieces finding chemistry together on the field.
The inexperience occasionally costs Florida wins and keeps them subdued below the other top teams in the country. Yet, through the adversity and challenges of the grueling early-season stretch, these young Gators have put the pieces together.
After a slow start, Florida looks like a team that could get back to the Final Four for the first time in a decade.
Florida scheduled five top-10 teams in its first seven games of the season, delivering a brutal stretch for the youthful squad.
The Gators made it through the gauntlet, battered and bruised, dropping four of their first six games. In each matchup, the Orange and Blue just weren’t sharp enough to compete for four quarters as penalties hindered their play.
The Gators committed far too many violations on defense, giving free-position shots and extra-man opportunities to their opponents. Florida was arguably the better team than No. 5 Stony Brook while playing disciplined lacrosse and staying out of the penalty box.
Ultimately, the Seawolves scored five free-position goals and spent ample time attacking a short-handed Gator defense March 5.
“We can't have those penalties,” O’Leary said. “It just sets us on our heels. It gives them an opportunity that they wouldn't necessarily have if we were playing even.”
The struggles continue for Florida on the offensive side with inconsistent production against good defenses.
Sophomore midfielder Danielle Pavinelli has been the saving grace, leading the way with 28 goals and nine assists.
“Danielle is off to a fantastic start,” O’Leary said. “We need to give her some support around her.”
Freshman attacker Emma LoPinto answered her coach’s call, dominating against Liberty March 9 and Kennesaw State in the season opener February 12. She has since struggled to make an impact against some of the best defenses in the country.
It’s hard to hold all the inconsistencies against LoPinto and her teammates. The Gators have a young offensive core.
The Gators’ six leading scorers this season are underclassmen, with only Pavinelli seeing any significant action in her collegiate career. That level of inexperience poses a challenge, especially early in the season and against great teams.
It was shaping up to be a difficult season for the Gators, sitting at 2-4 and looking behind the pace of other national championship contenders.
Then, the No. 3 Syracuse Orange came to Gainesville, and everything changed.
Just four days removed from yet another heartbreak, there was something different about the Gators on March 16.
They played faster, more disciplined and everything clicked a little differently.
LoPinto looked like the prodigious talent many expected her to be out of high school, where she was the highest-rated attacker in the class of 2021 by Inside Lacrosse. The rest of the offense executed at its highest level. The defense largely stayed out of foul trouble, while senior goalie Sarah Reznick delivered her best performance of the season with 11 saves at 54%.
“You play so many top-ranked teams in the country so early on,” O’Leary said after defeating Syracuse. “That's why we do it and it's to get that experience.”
Florida’s newfound confidence and quality carried over to the first half against the unranked Drexel Dragons Sunday. Sophomore attacker Maggi Hall scored five first-half goals and the Gators allowed just one goal in the first two periods.
Just as it looked like Florida was turning the corner, the inexperience and mistakes nearly derailed everything.
Drexel, a squad led by veterans, dominated the remainder of the game. The Dragons won every draw to start the second half and went on an 8-0 run to take a one-goal lead with under six minutes remaining in the game.
Florida lost all momentum and easily could’ve keeled over, but a young Gator team rallied and found a late spark. Hall scored with a minute on the clock and then provided the game-winning assist to Pavinelli with just 18 seconds to play, saving Florida from a nightmare collapse.
Contact Topher Adams at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Topher_Adams.
Topher Adams is a fourth-year communications major and in his fourth semester with the Alligator. He previously covered football, baseball and women's basketball. He also enjoys professional lacrosse and Major League Soccer.