I can imagine it being the happiest you’ve ever been in your young life.
For context, and better understanding for all you readers out there that don’t watch or understand Women’s College Lacrosse; imagine Jordan Reed catching an overtime touchdown pass in the end zone. He reaches up above the defender and pulls down the pass while tangled up with a defender. Jordan secures the ball, hits the ground, and as he’s rising to celebrate the game ending score, the ball comes out of his hand.
It looks like a touchdown. Sounds like a touchdown. Everything we’ve ever known about the sport and what our eyes just told us says touchdown. Imagine this Calvin Johnson TD catch from 2010… but much worse, given the circumstances.
Now to set the scene… Imagine that occurs in the final seconds of a SEC championship game. Imagine, the TD was disallowed and Florida loses in the next OT. Imagine having to come home after that, realizing that you were one arcane rule and a millisecond of “possession” away from a National title shot.
Essentially, that’s what happened to Florida Lacrosse in 2012.
Florida scored what appeared to be the game winning goal with less than 9 seconds left in the OT. Syracuse called for a “stick check” after the goal and it was discovered that the netting in the pocket in Gabi Weigand’s stick was too deep. An illegal stick was called and the goal waived off. Florida would go on to lose in double overtime 14-13. Syracuse would go on to the National Title game where it lost to Northwestern University, who Florida had beaten twice earlier that season.
The loss stings more because after the game winner was scored, a Syracuse player appeared to grab her teammates stick and tighten the strings before a stick check was called. Savvy move, but boy did that piss me off. I won’t go as far as to call it cheating… I’m mad we didn’t think to do it, but mostly because it’s an awful rule that is difficult to work around in the course of a game. Catching and tossing the ball over and over will loosen your stick strings… it happens. The way the game is played, there’s no good way to avoid this depending on the flow of the game and possession. In some instances, it’s the equivalent of trying to tie your shoe in the middle of a possession in basketball.
But that’s not the story here. This is about you, seniors.
Your Florida lacrosse team was 3 years old when this happened. Three! In your third year of existence, the program had gone from “New Kids on the Block” to national contenders who could make a very legitimate case that they SHOULDA WON IT ALL*. For almost a full year now, you have had to wake up every morning to work out or go about your day knowing that you likely came up 1-inch shy of playing for a title.* Walking around with that hateful feeling that you can’t just start 2013 where you left off and just get a do-over.
Instead, you had to start over from the beginning of the season at 0-0, just like everyone else, but with that 1-inch standing in front of you. Just sitting there. About an inch that some strings on a stick stretched too far. Teams have two choices when faced with that situation. They can rise to the occasion and let that angry inch fuel them to get better. Or they could stew and think about it and sleepwalk their way to a 12-4 record, make the tournament and “turn it on” when it matters. The latter option almost never really works out for anyone (ask UNC Basketball, who tries that method almost annually).
You chose the former. You began the season by defeating highly ranked North Carolina AT North Carolina for the first time in school history. (For some reason, we play them every year and it’s always on the road. Not sure when they get to come to Gainesville, but I digress…) Florida battled back from a 3-1 halftime deficit to win 5-3. That would have been a prime opportunity for the team to say, “Well, it’s 3-1 on the road. We lost to them last year and it didn’t hurt us. I mean… we were an inch away. We’ll make up for it later”. Instead, the team rallied and kicked UNC’s ass in the 2nd half.
They ran through the schedule like a hot knife through butter, even defeating Syracuse in the Orange Bowl classic in an absurdly gigantic Miami Stadium. The crowd resembled a Miami spring game. A recent trip up on the road at Penn State remains the only blemish on their record this season.
But that’s only part of the story ladies.
This being the 4th year of the program’s existence, you will be the first set of graduating seniors that Florida Lacrosse says goodbye to in your last home game this Saturday vs. Northwestern. The program started in 2010 with 24 freshman, 2 transfers, and 3 walk-ons that they carried over from the club team. Those young women, all highly recruited, chose Florida over several of the “blue blood” programs out there like Maryland, Northwestern, Syracuse, North Carolina, Duke, etc…
In your first season, I’m not sure anyone took you very seriously. All the while, you put together a winning record and had some great moments, beating some ranked teams that you weren’t expected to beat… and losing a few games you were expected to win. Even amongst our own fans base, I think most people thought that it was interesting and nice to see this group of pretty girls running around with sticks** in this game we didn’t quite understand totally.
But truth be told, you were being recruited by Mandy O’Leary when the lacrosse stadium was a big hole in the ground across the street from Southwest Rec Center. You signed here with no history in lacrosse to speak of. You signed here with the prospect of maybe being pretty good and living off of the reputation and commitment from athletics that just about every single sport we have at UF is annually relevant in their conference and usually nationally.
You bought the brand name. You haven’t looked back since.
Now 13 of you remain from that initial recruiting class to finish the mission. And 11 of them will play in the final home game on Saturday (Rachel Smith, due to recurring injuries, now serves as a volunteer manager and Hayley Katzenberger sat out a season due to injury and is a redshirt junior). Erin Graziano and Gabi Weigand will also be playing their last home games. Erin transferred to UF from Syracuse in her sophomore year and Gabi came to UF from Richmond as a junior in 2012.
13 of you will step on the field for the last time, when it seems like just yesterday, you had shown up on campus and were trying to figure out which way was up. It seems like just a minute ago that the 24 of you living in a residence hall together with no upperclassmen to tell you to chill out or just do what Sherri asks were giving me fits (My former life was full of this).
As a lacrosse fan that rarely missed a home game, I have some favorite moments that I’ll always remember with this program:
The first game in UF lacrosse history: The stadium was packed and standing room only vs. Jacksonville and mere seconds into the game, Sam Farrell went streaking down the field and fired a shot by the Jacksonville goalie for the first goal in the program’s history. The place went nuts! The sight of seeing someone wear #15 running down the field and scoring was not lost on me in that moment either.
Kitty Cullen’s 77 goal season in her sophomore year: Florida seemed to struggle offensively in the 2011 season and would often just get Kitty the ball in one on one situation and let her take her defender to the goal and score. That season probably took some years off of Kitty’s life with the physical punishment she took late in the season, but man I saw her twist some ankles and embarrass some girls that year.
UPDATE Yelling at Ronald Powell: The Gators were down 3 goals with 3:12 left and Syracuse with possession of the ball in a regular season game in Gainesville in 2012. Ronald Powell, Florida Football DE/LB was there with some friends and I said hello to him early on in the game. Florida got a steal and a goal and fans were starting to make noise to try and mount a comeback. My crazy ass is standing on the bleachers waving people to stand and make noise (always fun in a crowd packed with senior citizens and children). I looked Powie dead in his eyes on two occassions as he sat there quietly watching the game. Well, Florida got within a goal and i’m screaming at the top of my lungs. I once again made eye contact with Powie and this time took the opportunity to scream at him, ” WE STAND AND CHEER FOR YOU EVERY GODDAMN SATURDAY!! GET OFF YOUR ASS AND MAKE SOME NOISE!!!!” Seriously, you had to see it. Not my finest moment as a grown up, but we forced overtime. I knew then that this team was special.
Ashley Bruns setting up in “the Office” (Or as I like to call it “Bruns’ House”). It’s the area behind the opposing goal keeper where little #13 would camp out and often run the offense from back there. In the NHL years ago, Wayne Gretzky did copious amounts of damage to opponents from behind the goal and they called it “the office”. Ashley would dismantle teams from there with her passing and as soon as a defender would turn their head to look for a cutter, she would use her quickness to come from behind the goal and put the ball in a corner past the goalie. I swear… if you didn’t watch this team, you missed some really cool shit.
Caroline Chesterman’s leadership: I just can’t say enough about what she means to this team and the teams she’s been on. She is the only non-graduate that we placed on the “All Our-Two-Bits glue guys” team (for unsung players who made huge differences on their teams). What she does on this team doesn’t always show up in a box score, but having a seat right behind the Gators bench area, I see and hear what she does over there urging on her teammates, giving them direction, yelling at them when a coach doesn’t get through to them, and putting her arm around them when a coach yells at them and the get down on themselves. “Chester” as she’s affectionately known, is a rock to this team and I’m not sure where they’d be without her.
Brittany Dashiell’s everything. The magic of this senior class and this team in general has been their ability to adapt from year to year and progress in what they do. In year one, Bruns did a ton of the scoring with a mix of Dashiell, Hillier, Rhea and others, but the offense ran through Ashley. And we didn’t play much defense back then. In year two, the defense got much better with the out of nowhere emergence of Mikey Meagher in goal and the offense was Kitty Cullen left, right and up the middle. By year three, the program was a juggernaut. An infusion of new talent into the program, along with the experience from the now junior class created a monster that nobody could figure out. Teams piled on to face guard Kitty Cullen and take her out of games and everyone stepped up. Nobody could focus on just one player without paying for it somewhere else. Again, for context… Imagine a team loading up against a dominant basketball center and s/he kicks in out to teammates for open shots. That’s how it worked. Throughout all of those years, Brittany Dashiell remained one of the most consistent and steady forces. The future UF Athletic Hall of Famer just gets better every year with her goal numbers increasing each year and scoring about 20 total points more each season 30 in 2010, 50 in 2011, and 69 in 2012. Brittany has been a star that plays within the system. I think a lot of athletes out there could learn a lot from what she does, and what several of these players on this team have done.
UF Hall of Famer and former NFL lineman Mike Pearson said it best in his induction speech a couple weekends ago when he said, “I wish for my highlight film they’d just show me high fiving Rex (Grossman) after some of his touchdown passes. They don’t really make good offensive lineman highlight reels” And so it is for defensive players in lacrosse, but that doesn’t mean I won’t remember Kayla Stolins hustle, Jamie Reeg’s footwork (or her fantastic clutch goal against Ohio State in 2011!), or Emily Dohony’s solid play keeping opponents shots on goal to a minimum.
This lacrosse team and especially this class mean a lot to me. Even the ladies who didn’t make it this far. I still have a warm place in my heart for Janine Hillier who transferred to SUNY Stony Brook. I made a real connection with her mother when she was a freshman and I was still working with Residence Life at the University. I still call Jenna Hildebrand my favorite player. Before the team played a game, I picked her as my favorite at freshman orientation because, like me, she is from New Jersey. Jenna played in all of 4 games, tallying 1 draw control and 1 ground ball in her Gator career. I sat next to her at a game a year ago and told her, “You know I picked you as my favorite player in 2009” I will never forget her response. She chuckled a bit, looked dead at me and said, “Haha. Sorry.” Players who got injured, or just made different decisions for themselves based on opportunities to play or academics like Rachel Smith, Katie Ciaci, or Haydon Judge, will all have a special place in my heart and in UF history. And this is all without even mentioning my favorite Gator lacrosse player twitter account; @InGOBBweTrust (Gabi Weigand).
The list goes on and on. But as we sit here, on the final weekend of the regular season… the final home game for the 13 of you that took a chance on being a Gator. Sight unseen. No trophies to woo you. Just much better weather than home, the promise of something new, a pretty good coach from Yale, and Tim Tebow.
The 13 of you came here and stayed here to build the foundation for a lacrosse program that was an inch away from doing something very special*. 13 of you came here, far from home (with the exception of Jamie Reeg, the only high school Floridian in the class) to be a part of this community. Knowing nobody and nothing and you will be leaving as at least 2011 and 2012 ALC champions, 2012 ALC tournament champions, and 2012 NCAA Semi-finalists.
Every day you wake up, you have already won. But this team may be cut from a different cloth. This team chose not to let that angry inch weigh them down with the force of 1,000 pounds. This team has chosen to get angry over than inch and become something better.
The last of the 5am wake up calls are coming to an end for you. Study hall, training table and the row of little houses that make up your #FLax neighborhood, as if Mr. Rogers had put it there just for you, are about to be behind you. Your toughest test is still ahead of you, as you will likely play Northwestern 3 times in the next month or so. You may get another chance to play at “the Diz” before it’s all said and done and Florida may host NCAA tourney games in Gainesville.
Whatever happens down the road, you ladies should know that you built this program. We love Mandy and we love Erica for what they’ve done. But we love you for showing up every year at pre-game football events to sign autographs.
We love you for coming to softball games to throw out t-shirts, all building interest in your sport that was as foreign to Gator fans as cricket.
We love you for being so damn gorgeous while you do it and making it easier for some people to follow you all and the sport**.
We love you for the 62*** wins.
We love you for proudly representing the University of Florida and having a very heavy presence on the All-Academic Teams each and every year.
We love you for making us love lacrosse.
We love you for not apologizing for being so good, so fast and being the new kids on the block and beating the “blue bloods” at their own game.
We love you for NEVER giving an inch and for never letting that inch get you.
But most of all and most importantly, we love YOU. Period.
Thank you for 4 great years. Thank you for being Gators. And thank your parents for letting us borrow you during that time.
*- I realize that by beating Syracuse in the semi-final, Florida still would have had to play and beat Northwestern. Much like when the US beat the Russians in the 1980 Olympics, that wasn’t the gold medal game. The US had to go on and beat Switzerland after the “Miracle on Ice”. Florida had HANDLED the Wildcats twice already that year and while you still have to play the game, I like our chances.
**- One of my pet peeves with the way society follows Women’s sports is the need for our female athletes to by physically attractive as well as good at their sport. I’ve heard too many times from common viewers of the sport (read: drive by viewers) that a woman is too masculine or that she’s ugly, or the opposite, “whoa, she’s hot for a <<insert sport name here>> player”. It’s silly and ridiculous that the first two things people go to are if a female athlete is pretty or how would she fair against a man. So I hesitate to even mention how our lacrosse team “looks” and in essence, I’m apologizing for even bringing it up, but it’s worth mentioning that they kick ass and they look good doing it, and nobody should have to apologize for THAT.
***- Currently at 62 wins… but we ain’t done yet…
Thanks for reading and I challenge you to find anyone who’s written 3,000 words on Florida Lacrosse to date! This is my penance for having to miss Senior Day while being out of town.