Gators play unfamiliar role on road

FILE — Florida's junior midfielder Caroline Benitez (3) shoots on goal during a lacrosse match against Georgetown at the Donald R. Dizney Stadium. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

Florida lacrosse is headed to the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time since 2014. And this time, despite a No. 6 ranking and an impressive resume, the Gators are playing free of expectation.

When UF (17-3) takes on No. 3 James Madison today at 1 p.m. in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the Gators will seemingly own the unfamiliar label of ‘underdog’ as they look to defeat the Dukes for a spot in the NCAA semifinals.

“I think it’s, for this team, a great opportunity,” UF coach Amanda O’Leary said. “We aren’t the underdogs in a lot of situations so just thrilled to be heading into this round.”

At 19-1, it is James Madison’s most impressive season in the program’s 44-year history.

The Gators are facing an opponent they’ve yet to face in their nine-season history. The two programs do share familiar opponents, however: each suffered narrow defeats at the hands of No. 1 Maryland while claiming impressive wins over No. 2 North Carolina.

“They are a very, very good team,” O’Leary said. “Just a real offensive threat for us. Going into this game, the mindset is just continue what we’ve been doing. We’ve been successful at it. We’ve got to play team defense and we have to put the ball in the back of the net.”

Aside from a high-powered offense, one which boasts Tewaaraton finalist Kristen Gaudian, the Dukes have the nation’s No. 5-ranked scoring defense, allowing on average 8.9 goals per contest. Gaudian, a former walk-on, has been nothing short of stellar in her senior season for James Madison. The Fairfax Station, Virginia, native has 71 goals on the season, good for the eighth-most in NCAA Division I women’s lacrosse.

For a Florida program that had suffered postseason upsets each of the last three seasons while hosting NCAA Tournament regionals, going on the road has the Gators feeling cool and comfortable.

“Sometimes when you are the one who has the target on your back all the time, you’re always in defense of something. You have to go out and win, the expectations are so great,” O’Leary said. “I think for us, to be able to go out there and just play to play. There’s no expectations being the underdog. You go out, you can have fun, you can play your game. And I think that’s what they want to do.”

With a significant challenge ahead, Florida is attempting to let go of all expectations and pressure, with the simple intention of playing up to the level it has all season. But the laissez-faire mentality doesn’t mean the Gators aren’t looking to down James Madison and advance to the semifinals, where a battle with the winner of No. 2 North Carolina vs. Northwestern awaits.

“For our seniors who have lost in the Sweet 16 the past three years, it’s definitely heart-breaking. We know exactly what we need to do now to never feel like that again,” junior midfielder Caroline Benitez said. “We really can’t afford to not come out from the first whistle. We really have to play our best.”


What: Quarterfinals of the NCAA Women’s Lacrosse Tournament

Who: No. 6 seed Florida (17-3) at third seed James Madison (19-1)

When: 1 p.m.

Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM

Up next: The winner advances to the national semifinals Friday in Stony Brook, N.Y., with NCAA Championship game to follow May 27.