As part of recognizing the 25th anniversary of USA Lacrosse we’re looking back at some of the most impactful stories that we’ve shared in USA Lacrosse Magazine.
This story on the launch of the Florida women's lacrosse program was our January 2010 cover story. Lacrosse has seen exponential growth at the collegiate level over the last 25 years, but few schools have added the sport with the fanfare of the University of Florida.
The cover was a perfect illustration of the Gators (midfield Sam Farrell specifically) emerging from a swamp onto the national lacrosse scene. Clare Lochary's story showcased the commitment - hiring a proven coach in Amanda O'Leary, building a brand-new facility and a multi-year startup that helped attract the nation's No. 1 recruiting class. By year two, the Gators were in the NCAA tournament and they've remained one of the sport's elite programs.
Here's our January 2010 cover story:
“Have you seen a lot of fields? Is this a nice one?” asks someone from the University of Florida athletic department. His shades block both the Florida sunshine and my inquisitive gaze, so it’s hard to tell if he’s truly curious or just fishing for compliments.
But yes, I have seen a lot fields – Lakeside, Klockner, Navy-Marine Corps – to name a few favorites and the new Florida Lacrosse Facility is very nice. It’s two adjacent rectangles of Bermuda grass (one for practices, one for games), lined only for women’s lacrosse and flanked by stands for 1,500 fans. Inside the clubhouse, the equipment room resembles a Nike store. The number of flatscreen televisions in the locker rooms would put a midlevel rapper’s “Cribs” episode to shame.
This field is one of the most tangible signs of the gobs of money Florida has thrown at its women’s lacrosse program. Another is the 29 players on the practice field, working on how to ride a clear. It has been rated the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, built by two years of legwork by head coach and Hall of Famer Mandee O’Leary. They’ve all come to Gainesville for one reason.
“They bought into the dream. They bought into the fact that they want to win national championships,” says O’Leary.
The newly planted palm trees by the entrance of Florida’s field will take about 15 years to mature. How soon will the Gators’ lacrosse team do the same?
* * *
Ben Hill Griffith Stadium – affectionately called the Swamp – hosted a record-setting 90,907 fans on Nov. 28, 2009, when Florida’s football team trounced Florida State, 37-10. Between the first and second quarters of the game, members of the women’s lacrosse team came out on the field and were formally introduced to Gator Nation, with their faces on the JumboTron and their ears ringing with cheers.
Lacrosse is a traditional sport that doesn’t always take kindly to newcomers, and detractors might call this dog-and-pony show a prime example of Florida’s hubris. There has been catty sniping about the Gators’ ambitions on the Internet, predicting an embarrassing comeuppance for the pretenders to the throne. The Florida coaches tell the players not to read any of it, but some do anyway.
“I thought people would be more excited for us, but it’s been quite the opposite,” says midfielder Kitty Cullen. “Hopefully we can change people’s minds once the spring season happens.”
Usually, the lacrosse team’s visits to the Swamp are not so glamorous. They come here to sweat it out in the student-athlete’s gym, tucked beneath the stadium’s soaring structure.
To get to the gym, you must walk down a long hallway lined with plaques for each of the Gators’ 19 varsity teams, commemorating the 22 national titles they have won. Women’s lacrosse comes last along the wall. The plaque is tantalizingly blank.
At another school, they might have waited until a team actually won a championship before putting up a plaque, but that is not the Florida way. The unofficial motto of the athletic department is: We don’t win; we win championships. Mere winning is only a first step in Gainesville, even for new programs. Women’s soccer won it all in 1998 in its fourth season, and softball was added in 1997 and came up only one run short in the 2009 Women’s College World Series. To put those championship timelines in perspective, Division I has 322 women’s soccer programs, 284 softball programs and 90 women’s lacrosse programs.
“We’re thrilled about women’s lacrosse. We like doing this (adding new sports), and excited is an understatement,” says athletic director Jeremy Foley, a former Hobart lacrosse player and the mastermind of Florida’s hopeful rise to NCAA glory.
He gave O’Leary two years to recruit her first class, and spared no expense in building the facility or staff.
“You’re not adding lacrosse for two or three years. You’re adding it forever,” says Foley. “We want to be competitive for championships.”
Those expectations can be daunting, even for someone like Jenna Hildebrand. Hildebrand has led a charmed lacrosse life. Born in Florida, her father’s Air Force stationing moved the family to New Jersey when she was in the fourth grade. They ended up in Moorestown, where nearly every girl who picks up a lacrosse stick also picks up a spot in a college program. Hildebrand was the perfect age to be recruited for the University of Florida’s inaugural class, and thus finds herself back in the Sunshine State playing for the school whose athletes she worshipped growing up.
Sometimes the sheer size of the staff (a partial list: a full-time equipment manager, three student assistants, a full-time trainer, a student assistant trainer, four managers and a student videographer) is overwhelming.
“It hasn’t hit me yet, the amount of prestige Florida athletics has. I always think of the Florida football players as, like, amazing people,” says Hildebrand, a defender. “I don’t look at myself that way.”
She will. Or at least, she will after strength and conditioning coach Karin Werth has more time with her.
In any sport, the transition from high school to college athletics is tough. It’s even rougher when nearly everyone’s a freshman (there are three club crossovers and two transfers), and when those freshmen go to Florida.
“They don’t let anything slip around here,” says Werth. “The intensity was a big shock for them. There was lots of crying, lots quitting for that particular day.”
When the players run Gator Mountains (climbing the Swamp’s epic bleachers) eight times in a row, they sometimes question the wisdom of linking themselves with the titanic scope of Florida athletics. They wonder why they came here, what they’re expected to do and how they can do it.
“There’s an unbelievable amount of pressure on us,” says Hildebrand. “Our coaches are putting pressure on us. They built this team and they want us to be good. We have not let them down, our families down, each other down. The minute one person slacks off, it’s like, ‘What are you doing? I pushed through that. You can do it too.’”
It’s at times like this that having a bunch of upperclassmen around might be nice, but there are upsides to having a team chock full of newbies. No one is jaded, so everyone comes to practice fresh and excited.
“They’re paving their own way. I think it is neat to have a team full of people you can blend together and mold. There’s nothing in front of them,” says O’Leary.
No one has preexisting expectations, either about how hard offseason training should be or about how much playing time they will get when spring comes. And pressure is relative.
“To be a part of a new program was really appealing to me, to compete for a lot of playing time freshman year,” says Cullen. “I feel like we have nothing to lose, no pressure.”
* * *
On the other hand, with no history, there’s no benchmark for how good you are. Riding on the bus on the way to the Princeton Invitational in October, an anxious mood overcame the Gators. They were to scrimmage final four teams Northwestern, Penn and North Carolina, plus Syracuse and Princeton.
“I was terrified,” says Hildebrand. “I thought we were going to be so bad, because we’re all freshmen and I didn’t know what to expect. But then we started playing and … we’re good.”
In 30-minute running halves, Florida got an early 3-0 lead on the Heels before falling behind. The Gators tied the Orange and lost to the Wildcats, 5-2. (Northwestern’s average margin of victory in 2009 was more than 10 goals.)
It’s tough to tell anything from fall ball, but the Gators could tell that they were on a path towards being great.
“We definitely have a chance to compete, and we definitely have a chance to go deep,” says Rachel Zimmerman, a sophomore transfer from North Carolina.
O’Leary is evasive about how she will define success in 2010. A winning season? A tournament berth? A tournament win? Dare we suggest – a championship?
“We just want to get better and better each and every day,” says O’Leary.
But she also has an ambitious schedule, including Northwestern, Georgetown and North Carolina, one that could them in the postseason if they play it right.
The players speak plainly: they want to make the NCAA tournament. That’s a lofty goal for most first-year teams, but humble by Florida standards. For now, the Gators have their sights set on Feb. 20, when they host Jacksonville.
“When we’re all standing there with the national anthem playing, getting ready to start off not just the season but the entire program, and to set a standard for years to come, that’s what I’m looking forward to in the spring,” says Zimmerman.