Years in making, Florida lacrosse debuts Saturday


University of Florida lacrosse team players Julie Schindel, left, an applied physiology and kinesiology major, and Janine Hillier, a special education major, are shown before practice, Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at the Florida Lacrosse Facility on campus in Gainesville, Fla.

Erica Brough/Staff photographer
Published: Friday, February 19, 2010 at 7:05 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 19, 2010 at 7:05 p.m.

Saturday on the University of Florida campus, a top recruiting class will be put to the test.

This impressive group, however, was not produced by football coach Urban Meyer. Instead, it is the inaugural women's lacrosse class compiled by coach Amanda O'Leary, who beat out more established programs for recruits despite the fact the Gators had never set foot on a field. That will change at 6 p.m. Saturday at Donald R. Dizney Stadium, when the team plays its first game against Jacksonville (0-2), another first-year Sunshine State program.

The traditional Northeastern sport is growing on the national level, and both the Gators and the Dolphins are getting in on the action.

O'Leary, who was hired by Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley after 14 seasons at Yale, left Connecticut in 2007 to start building a program from scratch in Gainesville. That two-year head start, she said, was crucial to compiling a recruiting class that was ranked No. 1 by Inside Lacrosse Magazine.

"I think we got really lucky," O'Leary said. "We were named the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, which is exciting, but there's a little bit of pressure there when you bring in that type of talent, and it's all about how they perform on the field when they get here and that's what we're looking at right now."

The new coach and former Hall of Fame-caliber player sought out talent in the Northeastern hotbed of lacrosse and convinced them to come to play in warmer Florida weather.

"You bring them down here in mid-February or in the winter, and they come down here and it's 65, 70 degrees," O'Leary said. "It wasn't too hard to convince them to come here."

Freshman attacker Janine Hillier, whose Farmingdale Senior (N.Y.) squad finished the 2009 season ranked No. 1 in the nation with a 17-0 record, said the weather had an impact on her decision to choose the Gators.

"Playing in shorts ... in wintertime when everyone else at home, like all of our friends, are playing in sweats and spandex, and they're just jealous about us coming here to play in warm weather," Hillier said.

There is no shortage of talent on a Gators lacrosse team that features seven high school first-team All-Americans, but this is a squad comprised almost entirely of freshmen. O'Leary added two transfers and three players from a UF club program that finished fourth at nationals in 2009 to add leadership to the program. Twenty-three of the 29 players on the Florida team are from either Maryland or New York.

"I think it's one of those things where the University of Florida is outside the traditional geographic area that women's lacrosse is played, so I look at these women as pioneers, trailblazers, risk-takers if you will," O'Leary said. "The fact that they didn't take the road well-traveled, they took a road never traveled."

Foley entered the Gators into the American Lacrosse Conference, a league that features five-time defending NCAA champion Northwestern as well as three other teams that finished in the Top 15 of LaxPower's 2009 ratings (No. 10 Vanderbilt, No. 13 Penn State, No. 15 Ohio State). Also on Florida's 2010 schedule are No. 6 North Carolina and No. 11 Georgetown.

"When (Jeremy Foley) first told me we were going into the (ALC) ... he did tell me in order to be the best, you have to play the best," O'Leary said.

This young Gator squad will have to learn quickly to compete with the elite teams on their schedule.

"What we've determined is that they can't play like freshmen," O'Leary said. "They need to go out and they need to play like upperclassmen, and so our learning curve has to be much shorter than your typical experienced team."

Aided by Title IV requirements, NCAA women's lacrosse teams grew 83 percent between 1994-95 and 2004-05, making it the third fastest growing women's sport behind only women's golf (123 percent) and rowing (90 percent). The sport is recognized (but not sanctioned) by the FHSAA and is expanding locally at the high school level. Buchholz started its program two years ago, and Eastside and Gainesville are beginning girls' lacrosse this season.

Freshman Jamie Reeg, one of the few Floridians on this Gator team, was a four-year starter at Boynton Beach Park Vista where she led her team to two straight final fours (2008-09).

"I moved down (to Florida from New Jersey) as a freshman (in high school) and when I came here, it wasn't that popular at all, but throughout the four years I was there more and more schools kept getting it as a varsity sport," Reeg said.

O'Leary has worked to educate the locals on her sport, holding camps for high school players and talking to area groups about lacrosse.

"It's one of the fastest growing sports across the country (in college) so that rise in popularity I think will translate as well into the high schools," O'Leary said. "The local high schools around here, they're starting lacrosse so it's been a wonderful transformation to see that progress."

With a top recruiting class and top-notch facilities, this program is primed for a bright future in Gainesville.

"I think we can really see ourselves going far and hopefully winning a national championship at some point during our four years here," freshman midfielder Julie Schindel said.

Contact Adam West at 352-374-5052 or adam.west@gvillesun.com.

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