No jitters for Gators in semifinal matchup with Syracuse


Florida Gators players are introduced before the quarterfinals of the NCAA Women's Lacrosse Tournament against the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday, May 19. The Gators head into today's NCAA semifinal matchup with Syracuse as the first program from the deep south to reach a national semifinal.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Friday, May 25, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 24, 2012 at 9:15 p.m.

STONY BROOK, N.Y. — Florida heads into today's NCAA women's lacrosse semifinal matchup with Syracuse as a novelty, the first program from the deep south to reach a national semifinal.

Facts

NCAA semifinals

At Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium, Stony Brook, N.Y.
Today's games
No. 4 Syracuse (18-3) vs. No. 1 Florida (19-2), 5:30 p.m.
No. 3 Maryland (19-3) vs. No. 2 Northwestern (19-2), 8 p.m.

The top-seed Gators have needed just three years to become one of the elite programs in women's lacrosse. But there didn't appear to be any jitters as Florida (19-2) wrapped up practice Thursday afternoon at LaValle Stadium on the Stony Brook University campus.

“Emotionally, we're all where we need to be,” Florida freshman midfielder Shannon Gilroy said.

Florida is playing its first final four game in program history. The other three schools remaining — Northwestern, Syracuse and Maryland — have a combined 31 final four appearances.

“It is at times really surreal, and we look back at times and say ‘This is wonderful' and we reflect on that,” Florida coach Amanda O'Leary said. “We still have some work to do. It's fantastic making it to this point, but we certainly would like to make it further so that's what we are focusing on.”

The Gators arrived here Wednesday and held a team dinner at Gabi Wiegand's house in nearby Bay Shore, N.Y.

“The girls were able to sit out on their back deck and just hang out,” O'Leary said. “I think it just takes a little bit of the tension away, when the girls can go to a player's house.”

O'Leary's message to her players heading into today's matchup with Syracuse — enjoy it and make the most of it.

“You don't know if you ever will be able to experience it again,” O'Leary said.

Florida's on-field success has taken a sharp rise in its first three seasons, from 10-8 in 2010 to 16-4 and an Elite Eight appearance in 2011 to its current 19-2 record in 2012.

Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, whose team is the defending national champion and has won six of the last seven NCAA titles, had high praise for O'Leary's role in UF's early success. The Gators have emerged as a rival to Northwestern in the American Lacrosse Conference. The Gators beat Northwestern 8-7 in the regular season and knocked off the Wildcats 14-7 in the ALC Conference Tournament finals.

“Mandy has just done an outstanding job,” Amonte Hiller said. “Their program, top-to-bottom is an amazing program. We're lucky to have them in our conference and be able to compete against them once a year and sometimes more.

“I just have all the admiration for what she has done and knowing what it's like to start a new program, she has just really been able to accomplish an amazing thing. Their players have just done a great job of being confident in a short time-period.”

Florida announced it was starting a women's lacrosse program in 2006. O'Leary was hired in June of 2007, forced to sell players on facilities that hadn't even been built yet.

“We had nothing to show them,” said O'Leary, who had spent her previous 13 seasons coaching at Yale. “They would come on their recruiting visits and we had no stadium, we had no tradition, we had nothing to show them.

“These young women are trailblazers. They basically bought into something. … I think with all their hard work they've been able to achieve those goals.”

The storybook season for UF can continue if it can learn from its mistakes in its rematch with Syracuse. Florida has won 15 straight since its 12-11 double-overtime loss to Syracuse in March.

“We know going into tomorrow it's going to be a really tough and physical game,” Gilroy said. “We can't let them get into our heads. We've got to play our game.”

Florida also missed a number of scoring opportunities in the Syracuse loss, making just 11 goals in 39 shot attempts. Florida junior Kitty Cullen said the team focused on extra shooting this week in practice.

“I have seen them execute much better offensively and I think we're peaking at the right time,” O'Leary said.

Another key could be at the draw, where Gilroy will face off against Kailah Kempney. The Syracuse freshman has posted a school-record 83 draw controls this season, while Gilroy has 77.

“Possession is so important to the game,” O'Leary said. “If the ball goes up straight in the air, who is going to be gutsy enough to come down with it. It's just going to be a battle.”

Despite the distance, Florida still expects strong fan support for tonight's matchup with Syracuse. Gilroy and Wiegand are both from Long Island, and both expect hundreds of friends and family members to come out to the game. Florida junior Caroline Chesterman said a bus of fans from her native South Nyack, N.Y., is making an hour-plus-long trip to watch her and the Gators play.

“We need to ride the momentum we've been carrying throughout the end of the season,” Chesterman said. “We've been playing pretty well offensively and defensively, and hopefully it just continues into Friday's game.”

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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