Gainesville, Fla. – The score was tied, 19-19.
Florida had clawed its way back into a game it probably had no business being in, by way of a 7-2 run deep into the second half.
Fans, all decked out in red, white and blue began cheering for the underdog Gators, who had completely turned the momentum in the stadium in their favor.
“They just play with so much confidence,” Florida head coach Amanda O’Leary told US Lacrosse Magazine days before the game. “They’ve got an attitude about them, and it shows out on the field. They are very confident in their abilities.”
That confidence was on full display in front of some of the best women’s lacrosse players in the world.
With 2:15 left in regulation, North Carolina junior midfielder Marie McCool received a pass from former Florida assistant coach Michelle Tumolo at the top of the 12-meter line, shot-faked senior Caroline Fitzgerald out of the way, and fired the game-winning goal into the back of the net.
The Gators were unable to regain their mojo in the final two minutes, and ultimately fell to the U.S National Team, 20-19 at the 2017 Spring Premiere, held Jan. 14 at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Although it was just an exhibition, the game gave Florida’s coaching staff and players an opportunity to see where they stand among the best of the best before their regular season begins.
It was not, however, the first time they had faced Tar Heel standout Marie McCool.
Florida and North Carolina have gone head-to-head three times since McCool’s freshman season in 2015, and twice she has led her team to victory. If you include last month’s Spring Premiere, she has recorded 12 goals and two assists in her career against the Gators.
Meanwhile, McCool and defending national champion and No. 1-ranked North Carolina travel to Gainesville on Feb. 11 for Florida’s season opener.
This meeting will be the ninth all-time between the two schools, including the sixth time they have squared off in Florida’s season opener in the eight-year history of the program.
Although UNC holds a 6-2 advantage in the series, the Gators have to feel confident after traveling to Chapel Hill last season and taking down the eventual national champion, 16-15. Florida was paced by a breakout performance by Sydney Pirreca, who scored five goals in just her third game as a Gator.
This year the stakes are set to be even higher than in years past.
Florida is loaded with talent at the attack and defensive positions, but several questions still remain unanswered:
- Who will step up and replace Tewaaraton Award Finalist Nicole Graziano? Last year Graziano led the team with 61 points, 45 draw controls, 31 ground balls, and 22 caused turnovers in addition to being the team’s leader in the locker room as a fifth-year senior.
- Is sophomore Haley Hicklen ready to move into the cage full-time after heating up down the stretch last season? Her 16-save performance against the U.S. National Team would have been a single-game team record.
- How will the Gators, who have been lauded with various BIG EAST and Inside Lacrosse preseason honors, handle the expectations of making the program’s second Final Four run? UF returns nine starters from last season’s 18-2 team.
All of those questions and more will be answered when familiar foe McCool and the Tar Heels come to ‘The Diz’ next week.
As coach O’Leary frequently tells her team, “To be the best, you have to beat the best. What an amazing opportunity we have in front of us.”