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Danielle Pavinelli has Florida in the Final Four for the first time since 2012.

Once Written Off, Florida is Writing its Own Ending

May 23, 2024
Kenny DeJohn
John Strohsacker

The Florida women’s lacrosse team was written off before the spring even began — probably even before the Gators stepped on the field for fall ball.

It wasn’t about who was coming back or about who was coming in. The talk was about who was lost.

Emma LoPinto, who produced 187 points in two seasons as a Gator, departed for Boston College. As did Becky Browndorf, who started all 56 games of her four-year career in Gainesville. Longtime defensive backbone Sarah Reznick was gone to graduation, too, leaving a gaping hole and an enormous question mark in goal.

Then the season began and Florida again got written off. The Gators dropped 18-10 and 19-10 decisions to Loyola and North Carolina, respectively, leaving Amanda O’Leary’s team staring at an 0-2 record after the UNC loss on Feb. 17.

Oh how the narrative has since changed.

Florida has blossomed. It owns the nation’s longest winning streak at 20 games and is on its way to Cary, N.C., for Championship Weekend, where it will face defending champion Northwestern in the NCAA semifinals on Friday at 3 p.m. Eastern.

The Gators punched their first Final Four berth since 2012 by beating Maryland in College Park — ironically the same place where their turnaround started on Feb. 24 with a 13-12 overtime win.

“In the beginning of the season, they set some goals for themselves, and the Final Four was one of those goals,” O’Leary said this week. “And when you lose your first two games of the season, you kinda start reevaluating, like, is this really a possibility?”

Florida didn’t buckle, playing with an edge few teams — if any — can match. During the 20-game winning streak, the Gators have outscored opponents 374-144. The overtime win over Maryland was the only one-goal result in the stretch. The next-closest margin was three goals (16-13 over Princeton).

“After that Maryland win, we knew we had what it took to go far and go all the way,” attacker Danielle Pavinelli said. “That just stuck in the back of our minds the entire time. We knew how talented we were. We knew how special this team was.”

What makes Florida’s run even more impressive is that it’s been accomplished mostly away from the friendly confines of Dizney Stadium. The Gators have played just two home games since March 30 (April 13 vs. James Madison and April 27 vs. Temple). They were on the road for the AAC championship tournament in Nashville and then denied a national seed and hosting rights in the NCAA tournament.

Florida was sent to a brutal pod in Charlottesville, Virginia, featuring the Cavaliers and the Tar Heels. It avenged that early loss to UNC with a 17-8 thumping of the Heels before gritting out a 13-8 win over fifth-seeded Virginia in the second round.

Then it was on to College Park for what — on paper, anyway — had the makings of a shot-for-shot battle. All Florida did was deposit the first nine goals of the game to bury the Terps before they could even get going.

“I think actually losing those two games probably did more for us in regard to looking at what we were doing, how we were doing it, reevaluating some things,” O’Leary said. “And you know that group — they really just never wavered with what they wanted to accomplish.”

“Proving people wrong” is perhaps an overused rallying cry in sports. But any shred of doubt can be used to manifest motivation, and Florida has legitimate reasons to stoke the flames of being overlooked.

The Gators toe the line of balance and aggression. It’s an unrelenting attack, led by Maggi Hall, Pavinelli and Ashley Gonzalez. A pesky, persistent midfield anchored by Emily Heller with contributions from Madison Waters, Sarah Falk, Paisley Eagan and Josie Hahn gives teams fits between the 30s.

Liz Harrison has become a one-woman wrecking crew on the draw, either self-drawing or navigating the ball to Gators on the circle.

Then there’s the biggest preseason question mark, a young defense that has done more than held its own. Elyse Finnelle entered fall in a goalie battle with UConn transfer Georgia Hoey, but Finnelle took the job and ran with it to the tune of a 54-percent save percentages — tops among the four goalies remaining in the tournament. In front of Finnelle, Theresa Bragg (a sophomore) and Ashley Dyer (a freshman) have joined with Princeton transfer Maria Pansini to give Florida a defense that can’t be overlooked.

“They feel like they can compete with any team out there, which I think is ideal, obviously going into a game like Northwestern,” O’Leary said. “That team is so polished and has been to so many Final Fours, and many, many championships in their pockets. So, I think just have that confidence and having that senior-laden team has really helped us tremendously.”

And why shouldn’t the Gators be confident? They’ve overcome significant offseason roster shuffles. An 0-2 start. Significant road game after significant road game.

Florida is playing with all the moxie in the world. And while the initial goal of a Final Four berth has been scratched off the to-do list, it’s no surprise the Gators are calling an audible and extending those goals for one last weekend.