After an easy 16-5 win against Jacksonville Wednesday night, the No. 6 Gators lacrosse team will head into arguably its most difficult stretch of the season when they face No. 3 North Carolina, No. 7 Syracuse and No. 8 Navy over an 11-day span.
That stretch will begin Saturday afternoon at 1:15, as Florida (3-1) will travel to Chapel Hill to take on the Tar Heels (3-1) at Kenan Stadium.
“It’s exciting,” Gators coach Amanda O’Leary said. “It’s another opportunity to play a top-ranked team.”
Defeating the red-hot Tar Heels won’t be an easy feat for UF. After losing its first game to James Madison, UNC has won three straight. Most recently, North Carolina defeated then-No. 1 Maryland in double overtime, 16-15.
On Feb. 17, Florida rallied from a seven-goal deficit but eventually lost to Maryland 16-14.
North Carolina is one of the most talented and complete teams Florida will play all season and competing on the road will only exacerbate what will be a tough test.
“They have threats all over,” O’Leary said. “From top to bottom.”
Much of the Gators’ energy will be spent trying to slow down one Tar Heel in particular – senior midfielder Marie McCool.
McCool was a Tewaaraton Award finalist and first team All-American in 2017, and she has picked up right where she left off in 2018.
Through four games, she has 18 goals and 31 draw controls, including a season-high seven goals in a 23-4 beatdown of Liberty. In the victory over Maryland, she had four goals and eight draw controls.
Florida will likely see two Tar Heel goalies on Saturday. Sophomore Elise Hennessey has started all four of North Carolina’s games and has nine saves for the season.
However, in the first three games Hennessey sat the second half in favor of redshirt freshman Taylor Moreno, who has 21 saves.
In the victory over Maryland, after giving up seven goals in 12 minutes with no saves, Hennessey was pulled in favor of Moreno, who finished the game with seven saves and earned the win.
North Carolina’s scoring attack has also put up 67 goals through four games, and has been able to flip the field position with ease, notching a clear percentage of .962.
Once again, the Gators will lean heavily on their freshman class, which has contributed heavily so far this year. Of Florida’s 63 total goals, 17 have come from freshmen.
“They’ve exceeded all expectations thus far,” O’Leary said.
One of those freshmen, Baltimore native Grace Haus, is coming off the best game of her career so far, scoring four goals in the dismantling of Jacksonville.
The first time UF played a top-five team in Maryland this season, it wasn’t able to get the job done, and the Gators have only won at UNC once in program history, defeating the Tar Heels 16-15 back in 2016.
But this time around, the team feels more confident than ever and is ready to try and earn a statement win on the road.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” Haus said. “But it’ll be a good fight.”