University of Florida's Women's Lacrosse Team Taps Washington-Baltimore Talent for First Season

"I thought it would be fun to start a new program," said Sam Farrell, center, one of nine Gators from the area.
"I thought it would be fun to start a new program," said Sam Farrell, center, one of nine Gators from the area. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Dave Yanovitz
Special to the Washington Post
Friday, June 26, 2009

On one sport's home page at the University of Florida's athletic Web site, there is a countdown clock, ticking off the hours, minutes and seconds to a highly anticipated season opener. The defending national champion football team? No. The men's basketball team, winners of two of the past four NCAA tournaments? Nope.

In 238 days, women's lacrosse, whose genesis in this country dates 83 years ago to the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore, will make its varsity debut in a state where running backs and baseball players have long dominated the collegiate sporting landscape.

The Gators will open at home against Jacksonville -- and a host of Washington and Baltimore area players are poised to form the nucleus of the Gators' inaugural team. Florida will jump directly to Division I and play in the American Lacrosse Conference, a league that includes five-time defending national champion Northwestern and Johns Hopkins; until now, the Gators only had a club lacrosse team.

Of the 12 girls' lacrosse players named first-team All-Met by The Post this spring (out of about 2,000 in the Washington area who competed on the varsity level), four have chosen to play in Gainesville.

"I thought it would be fun to start a new program and start history," said Sam Farrell, Severna Park's tenacious midfielder who led the Falcons to a third consecutive Maryland 4A/3A state championship. "By our junior and senior year, we'll be really, really good, and with our great coaching even our first year we'll have some potential."

Coach Amanda O'Leary had a .714 winning percentage in 14 seasons at Yale and was a U.S. national team member in the early '90s; assistant coach Jennifer Ulehla was a teammate of O'Leary's on the national team, a former head coach at Temple, and is an assistant coach on the current national team; assistant Erica LaGrow is currently playing on the national team at the Women's World Cup in Prague.

Farrell will join fellow All-Mets Hayley Katzenberger (Holy Cross), Ashley Bruns (Mount Hebron), and Haydon Judge (St. Mary's-Annapolis) on the Gators' team. Bruns broke Mount Hebron's single-season scoring record with 103 goals; Katzenberger scored 67 goals by virtue of her relentless effort in charging to the net; Judge was arguably the fastest player in the region, at times taking the ball the length of the field to score -- or set up -- a goal for St. Mary's, which plays in the nation's toughest league.

"I wanted to be part of a new program," said Judge, who committed to Florida more than a year ago. "I didn't want to go to a school with a reputation; I wanted be part of the development of that reputation."

In addition, five other players from the Washington area will also be among the Gators' first recruiting class: Lelan Bailey (Severna Park), Lindsay Higham (Severn), Julie Schindel (St. Mary's-Annapolis) and a pair from Mount Hebron, Rachel Smith and Amanda Wedekind. Bailey and Schindel were named second-team All-Metro by the Baltimore Sun.

Florida has built a $16 million facility that will serve as the competition and practice field for lacrosse and the practice field for soccer. The facility is slated to be completed at the end of July. The lacrosse team has a full NCAA complement of 12 scholarships, and is operating with annual budget of $331,000, not including salaries, scholarships and support staff.

O'Leary has established an impressive pipeline to the Baltimore-Washington area -- generally considered among coaches the strongest region of the country for high school girls' lacrosse. Of the 24 recruits that will make up the Gators' 2010 team, 17 played for Baltimore or Washington high schools. Six of those 24 will be on the field tomorrow for the All-America Lacrosse Classic at Towson University. The girls' game at 5:30 p.m. will be followed by a boys' game. Perhaps even more impressively, of the 45 all-Americans playing in the girls' game, Florida has six coming to Gainesville, more than established programs Maryland (five), Virginia (five) and North Carolina (four).

"The joke is that I might as well have had a house or an apartment up there for as much time as I spent" in the Washington area, O'Leary said from Gainesville. "BWI airport and I are very close. I know every gate.

"It was obviously well worth it when you can come back and have the quality players we've had [decide] to come down here."

O'Leary was hired in June 2007 -- and she took advantage of her two full years to recruit her inaugural class. Targeting the D.C.-Baltimore region was a no-brainer.

"Start where the best players are. I'm going to go after the best of the best, and many of them are in the Maryland-Virginia area. The nervous part was going in and [wondering] how the University of Florida was going to be received in the lacrosse community."

The NCAA began crowning a women's lacrosse champion in 1982, but not a single college or university in the state of Florida offered Division I lacrosse until now. Florida and Jacksonville University will begin play in 2010.

Lynda Tealer, senior associate athletic director for women's sports at Florida, said the university has had a goal for a number of years of "the continuing expansion of athletic opportunities for women," as outlined in Title IX.

Tealer said the school went through a review of sports and saw that lacrosse "had a ton of growth on the youth level, high school level and college level. There is tremendous momentum for women's lacrosse."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company