Posted: 5:38 p.m. Saturday, April 20, 2013
By Andy Hutchins
It was not fun to be waiting for play to begin in the stands at Donald R. Dizney Lacrosse Stadium this afternoon. Rain that had been drizzling for hours started coming down a little harder. The temperature, usually in the 80s by noon in April, hovered around 60. The sky was gray as slate.
Then Florida and Northwestern took the field, and the Gators handed the defending national champions their worst loss in program history, making Senior Day for the team's superb first recruiting class an extraordinary occasion. The final score was Florida 22, Northwestern 4, and it is possibly the most shocking result in the entire history of collegiate women's lacrosse.
Northwestern, after all, has fully earned its rep as the dominant program of the last decade. The Wildcats have won seven of the sport's last eight national titles, including the last two, and had lost just 10 times since 2005 entering Saturday, compiling a sterling 183-10 record that included seven straight 20-win seasons and a 13-1 mark in 2013.
Florida gave about a billionth of a damn about all that on this day, racing out to a 3-0 lead in the first 87 seconds and building to a 13-2 lead by halftime. Florida went up 12-2 with 5:20 left in the first half, triggering a running clock against the two-time national champions, and Northwestern made zero saves in the first half — one of many pieces of evidence that the only thing that could stop Florida on this day was Florida, which clinched at least a share of the American Lacrosse Conference's regular season .
The second half was even worse for the Wildcats: After stopping a seven-goal Florida run with its first goal not from a free position shot at the 24:47 mark of the first half, Northwestern allowed another seven-goal Florida run over the next 24:33, with the Gators only relenting after going up 22-3 with more than 10 minutes to go. Florida was faster, stronger, tougher, and smarter than the Wildcats on this day, and could really have pushed for 30 goals had it wanted to, but chose to stall for much of those final 10 minutes.
Six Gators — seniors Ashley Bruns, Kitty Cullen, Brittany Dashiell, and Gabi Wiegand, and sophomores Nora Barry and Shannon Gilroy — had at least four points each, with Gilroy pumping in six goals and Dashiell getting six points on three goals and three assists. Dashiell and Gilroy were also tremendous on draw controls, with Dashiell snagging seven and going over 200 in her career and Gilroy adding five.
Numbers and words after the fact simply won't do the proper justice to this win, which about 1,000 fans endured the rain to see. The conditions were perfect for Northwestern, a team that plays its home games minutes from Lake Michigan in the bitter Chicago winter, and atypical for Florida, a program built on the promise of a sun-dappled kingdom, but the mostly transplanted Gators thrived in them, by forcing turnovers with pressure in the midfield and defensive end, pursuing ground balls like they were gold, and vivisecting Northwestern's defense with long runs and precise passing. Florida scored on 22 of its 28 shots and 23 of its shots on goal, and the defense that had been a worry for the Gators in recent weeks was incredible, holding a team with four 20-goal scorers to four goals on the day and limiting Erin Fitzgerald, who came in with 46 goals in 14 games, to just two in her 15th.
The loss was the worst in Northwestern's program history, and Florida put up the most goals ever by a Northwestern opponent; it was Northwestern's first loss by 10 or more goals since 2003, just the second year of varsity competition for the Wildcats after the program was reinstituted in 2002. In those 10 losses since 2005 entering today, Northwestern had been beaten by a combined 28 goals; take away the Gators' three wins over Northwestern before today, and the Wildcats' seven other losses since 2005 had come by a combined 18 goals. Florida is now 4-2 against Northwestern, and has furnished more than a third of the Wildcats' losses over their last eight seasons since March 2011.
But to really grasp what these Gators did today, you need to know that in 2010, in its first year of varsity competition, Florida trailed the Wildcats 14-0 at halftime in Evanston, and 15-0 just 10 seconds into the first half, en route to a 19-5 loss that remains the worst in program history. Florida had just five players who weren't freshmen in 2010, and just one non-freshman — Caroline Cochran is the trivia answer — played in that game.
It was completely understandable that Florida would lose to that Northwestern team, which had won the last five national titles, and was just three games removed from a 48-game winning streak that had begun in 2010, and not even all that embarrassing that Northwestern went up 10-0, crossing the threshold for a running clock, with 10:50 to go in the first half. That was the only Northwestern team of the last eight years that didn't win a national title, but the distance between those Wildcats and the new kids on the block in the ALC might best have been measured in light years on that day.
Three years later, with nine players who played in that game now playing on their Senior Day, the Gators had far more at stake: Their top-five ranking and a chance to wrestle a share of the ALC regular season title from another top-five Northwestern squad and earn their third straight conference crown were both on the line on Saturday. And they claimed those rewards by scoring as many goals against the two-time defending national champions as they did against lowly Stetson and holding the Wildcats to their fewest goals since May 2003.
Today, Florida's four-year-old women's lacrosse program made the team that has ruled women's lacrosse for the last eight years like few teams have ever ruled any NCAA sport look like ... well, like the coltish Florida team that was just learning how to run in 2010.
In a way, this day was the Gators' payback for that one. In another, more significant way, it felt a lot like the passing of the torch from one titan to another.