Lacrosse's Cullen goal oriented

Published: Thursday, April 14, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 at 11:56 p.m.

Kitty Cullen had a standout freshman season for Florida lacrosse in 2010, but one problem stood out.

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Sophomore Kitty Cullen and Florida play host to No. 2 Northwestern today at 6:30 p.m.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer

“Just finishing my shots mainly,” she said. “Last year I was getting the opportunities but I just wasn't capitalizing on them and finishing the shots.”

Problem solved in a big way.

Cullen now leads the nation with 61 goals in 13 games after scoring 31 times in 18 games as a freshman. Among this year's total was the second-fastest goal in NCAA history when she scored eight seconds into a game.

“I've matured a lot since last year,” Cullen said. “Coming in as a freshman, everything was so much harder. My body was being worked like it had never been worked before. So, a lot more maturity this year. I'm just a lot more used to things.

“I worked a lot on my shot over the summer. The coaches have helped me with it as well. ... I worked on finishing and placing my shots instead of just shooting for power.”

The sixth-ranked Gators will need every bit of Cullen's scoring prowess in today's home game against national powerhouse Northwestern, the No. 2 team in the nation. A year ago, Cullen and Florida were humbled in a 19-5 shellacking on a visit to Northwestern.

Four days later, Cullen scored six goals against Johns Hopkins in the 2010 American Lacrosse Conference Tournament. It's a performance Cullen points to as her turning point.

“I was like 6-for-6 (shooting),” she said. “It just showed me that I actually could do it.”

The high shooting percentage has carried over into this season. Where Cullen connected on 34 percent of her shots in 2010, she is now scoring on a whopping 58 percent of her shots.

UF coach Amanda O'Leary has seen the difference firsthand.

“She's just so dynamic,” O'Leary said. “She has all of the natural attributes to be a fantastic lacrosse player. She's quick. She's fast. She's got a great stick. She sees the field very, very well. She's just a tremendous athlete.”

Cullen's onslaught of goals this season has naturally led to national exposure and a lot more attention from opponents.

“The fact that she's creating these opportunities when she has a face-guard on her, double-teams, triple-teams — that's just maturity,” O'Leary said.

“She's so dominant out on the field, and defenses always need to know where she is at all times. She's not somebody that flies under the radar. She's somebody where every team who scouts us, that's probably who they're focusing on. And she's still able to score a tremendous number of goals.”

Northwestern comes to town offering the greatest of measuring sticks. It's easily the biggest game in the brief history of UF women's lacrosse, with the winner gaining the critical No. 1 seed in the American Lacrosse Conference tournament, May 5-7 in Nashville, Tenn.

“I think it would make a huge statement (to win this game), just given Northwestern's tradition and their success this season and in past seasons,” O'Leary said. “We got beat handily by Northwestern (last season). They were just so much better than us, it's hard to sort of put into words. In all honesty they beat us on the offensive end, on the defensive end, in the goal, through the midfield. They were just so much more dominant.

“Given a year of maturity, you have to hope we're going to go into this game with a different mindset.”

Cullen admits she and her teammates were in awe last season.

“Last year,” she said, “the whole team, we stepped on the field like, ‘Oh my god, Northwestern.' Ever since I was young Northwestern is like the best team. They were five-time national champions. So having to step on the field against that team last year as a freshman was just scary. It was so scary.

“It was definitely a huge learning experience. It was embarrassing. We were down 14-0 at half. In the second half they had their defenders playing attack against us. It was embarrassing. It was their Senior Day. I think they had every senior score, and it was just like, ‘Wow, we're that team they're doing it against!' So I think that after that game last year we just had to really turn it around, and it kind of sparked a little bit of a fire.”

Cullen has been on fire in the goal-scoring department ever since.

“This year we're such a different team than last year,” she said. “We're still the underdog, but we actually do have a chance this year to beat them and upset them. We're so much more confident on the field. We play together so much better, we have so much more chemistry. So it's just going to be a completely different team than they saw last year.”

And a different Kitty Cullen.

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