Underdog story: Florida returns to the NCAA women’s lacrosse final four for the 1st time since 2012

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Amanda O’Leary opened the clothing box, pulled out a few items and got a clear picture of the challenge ahead.

The first batch of “Florida Lacrosse” gear she ordered in 2007 arrived with an error. It was an honest mistake: the printer assumed O’Leary wanted “LaCrosse” spelled like the small town 15 miles north of Gainesville.

Regardless, it showed just how far the coach had to go to get women’s lacrosse on the map in the Sunshine State.

Now, after 15 seasons and 17 years with the Gators, O’Leary has a chance to secure her coaching legacy when Florida plays in the women’s championships for the second time in school history and the first time since 2012.

The unseeded Gators (20-2) are looking to crash a final four party typically reserved for traditional lacrosse powers. They play top-seeded and defending national champion Northwestern in the first semifinal game Friday in Cary, North Carolina. No. 2 seed Boston College and third-seeded Syracuse square off in the other.

Make no mistake, though: O’Leary and Florida aren’t satisfied just being back in the mix for the first time in a dozen years. Winners of 20 in a row, including five straight away from home, the Gators believe they’re contenders to bring home the program’s first national championship.

“This team has really just dug their heels in and, kind of, they had something to prove,” O’Leary said. “They wanted to show people that we were probably better than we were given credit for, and they went out and proved it throughout this tournament.”

O’Leary credits 16 seniors, including six in their fifth year, and last season’s second-round postseason exit as motivation. An 0-2 start only added to “the chip on our shoulder,” star attacker Danielle Pavinelli said.

“Not to sound cocky or anything; I don’t want it to sound that way, but I am very confident in this group of girls,” fellow attacker Maggi Hall said. “I’m not scared for this weekend. Nervous? Yeah, definitely, because I’m nervous for every game. But I am excited for what’s to come.”

O’Leary led the upstart Gators to the national semifinals in the program’s third season, a head-turning build that began when then-athletic director Jeremy Foley — a former Division III lacrosse player — convinced the Yale coach to move a thousand miles south and spend two years recruiting before its inaugural season.

Showing just how out of place lacrosse has been in the South since, Florida and Vanderbilt are the only Southeastern Conference members with women’s teams and they play in the American Athletic Conference after stints in the Big East and the American Lacrosse Conference. Florida is moving to the Big 12 in 2025 as Florida State and USF begin programs.

“The sport is blowing up down here in the South,” O’Leary said. “It’s really growing, and a ton more women’s lacrosse programs are popping up everywhere.”

The Gators have been the main attraction in Florida for more than a decade. O’Leary is 239-59 since arriving in Gainesville, a jaw-dropping .800 winning percentage. She’s yet to have a losing season and has advanced to the NCAA tournament every year since her inaugural campaign in 2010.

She insists this team is special because “chemistry is off the charts.” It’s led players and coaches to eating ice cream the night before every game and after every win. Add those up and it’s 40 trips over the last three months. They’ve gotten so versed in the tasty treat that they’ve started ranking parlors.

“It became a huge superstition of ours all of sudden,” Pavinelli said.

Added O’Leary: “Our nutritionist probably is like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ But it’s been a tradition.”

They already have a creamery picked out in Cary. They could end up being repeat customers if everything works out.

Two more upsets and Florida would become the first program — men’s or women’s — south of North Carolina to win it all. If it happens, O’Leary certainly won’t have to worry about anyone messing up “Florida Lacrosse” again.

“We’re doing pretty well for being a southern team, the southernmost team at this point,” O’Leary said. “We’ll take it.”


AP college sports: https://apnews.com/hub/college-sports

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