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Florida lacrosse team starts strong

As the crowd worked itself into a frenzy before tipoff of the Florida and South Carolina basketball game in Gainesville, Fla., last month, 29 unknown athletes walked to the center of the court to a standing ovation. Last week, they were the center of attention as the inaugural Florida women's lacrosse team took to the field for the first time in school history.

It took nearly four years of preparation, but the Gators finally got their program launched, and with a respectable send-off. The team, led by former Yale head coach Amanda O'Leary, won its first two games of the season.

"The first games have gone very well," O'Leary said following the team's 15-5 win over La Salle on Tuesday. "It's been great. The overall reception from our inaugural game, having over 2,100 people and having people left standing outside wanting to get in, says a lot about the fan support that we're going to have. I thought the team played very well considering all of the pregame fanfare and the hype surrounding it."

The hype started on June 14, 2006, when Florida AD Jeremy Foley officially announced the school's plans to expand its women's sports program and add lacrosse. It culminated on Saturday when the Gators hosted Division I Jacksonville University -- the only other school in the state with D-I women's lacrosse -- in front of a sellout crowd at Donald R. Dizney Stadium. Florida won 16-6.

Associate AD Lynda Tealer said the school opted to add lacrosse over other sports because of the sport's growth at the youth level. The NCAA has 91 D-I schools competing in women's lacrosse, nine more than in 2005.

"It's a sport that's now in the Florida high schools," she said. "Geographically, it's at least concentrated on the East Coast. We thought there were a lot of places to recruit from. There was enough momentum behind lacrosse that it seemed like the best fit for Florida."

A one-year coaching search led to the hiring of O'Leary.

"Somebody like Mandy O'Leary, quite honestly, was not someone we felt we had a shot at really having access to," Tealer said. "She was very successful at Yale and had been there a long time. We were very fortunate that she expressed interest in the job."

After leading Yale's women's lacrosse team for 14 years, O'Leary said she was drawn by the challenge of building a program from nothing to national prominence.

"If I was to leave Yale, I wanted to leave knowing the place I was going to go was a strong academic institution," O'Leary said. "Having been at Yale for 14 years, that was a huge priority. I wanted to go to a place where I thought I could compete for a national championship. Given the tradition of the University of Florida and their academics and their athletics, it was a dream come true."

Still minus a facility and assistant coaches, O'Leary began recruiting.

"They really did have to buy into a dream," O'Leary said. "We had no facility, we have no tradition, we didn't have anything to show them. All we had to explain to them is that we have this dream. We are going to provide a quality facility; we are going to have the resources to compete at the highest level. They bought into it, and they're here."

Now, as the team's season progresses, O'Leary has an elite facility, two assistant coaches and the No. 1 recruiting class in the country for 2009, according to Inside Lacrosse.

O'Leary attributes some of her recruiting success to a head start and her competitive nature. After being hired in 2007, she was able to start recruiting the class of 2009 a year before most of the other major college programs. She believes that being the first school to show interest and offer a scholarship was an advantage for the Florida program. Being a Division I program didn't hurt either. The team has 12 full scholarships to work with and an operating budget of $331,000.

With two years away from coaching, O'Leary had to focus on recruiting and building the Gators' program.

"You work that competitive side, when you're not on the field competing, but you're in the homes of the players that you're recruiting," she said. "You take that competitiveness that you have on the field and you translate into the recruiting."

One of O'Leary's targets, Sam Farrell of Millersville, Md., was initially skeptical about being a part of a startup lacrosse team. Instead, she took recruiting visits to Notre Dame and Maryland. However, as she looked into the progress Florida was making under O'Leary's leadership, Farrell decided to consider becoming a Gator.

"I knew Florida has a huge tradition of great athletics," Farrell said. "I knew they were putting a lot of money, effort and time into the facility and to get the best recruits."

Having O'Leary in place as the head coach also made Farrell feel more comfortable with the move to Florida.

"She just seemed like a mother figure and that she'd be really supportive of everyone," Farrell said. "I just could tell when I first met her that she was going to be a good coach."

Farrell said she was surprised by Florida's ranking right out of the gate.

"I was really shocked," Farrell said of the No. 1 class. "That made a lot of teams doubt us even more and talk about us even more, but I was really excited."

"You feel good that someone recognizes that this group is a quality group," O'Leary said. "Until they perform on the field, people can say they're No. 1 or No. 2, it doesn't matter. If this group is successful in their four years playing here in Florida, then we'll deem it a No. 1 recruiting class."

Florida is competing in the elite, six-team American Lacrosse Conference because the Southeastern Conference does not have a conference championship for women's lacrosse. The American Lacrosse Conference, home to the five-time defending national champion Northwestern Wildcats, will serve as a true test for the young Gators' team.

"It's a big-time conference," Tealer said. "There's a part of that starting out that's intimidating, and there's a part of that that's very exciting."

"That is another reason most of us came here," Farrell said of the competition level in the conference. "I think we can handle the challenge and it's just going to make us better."

Florida played five exhibition games in preparation for the season opener against Jacksonville. The Gators finished their preseason schedule with a 3-1-1 record, including a win over Princeton, which made the second round of the NCAA tournament last year.

"They're getting better each and every game," O'Leary said of the season's first two games. "The first game was a little sloppy, which we expected a little bit just because of the excitement and it being the first game and the pregame jitters. They really came out against La Salle and they really played well. We've seen a lot of improvement from between the first and second game."

Patrick Carney is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.