Lacrosse, long a regional sport, has enjoyed a recent surge in popularity, helping it spread from coast to coast and turning it into a national game.
That evolution was evident at Sun Life Stadium on Saturday, March 2, as four of the nation’s top college lacrosse teams traveled to South Florida to participate in the 2nd annual Orange Bowl Lacrosse Classic.
The success of last year’s inaugural event – which featured some of the area’s top local high school programs and youth teams – as well as the sport’s continued rise locally led to the inclusion of the more physical, fast-paced college game, pushing the 2013 Orange Bowl Lacrosse Classic into full-blown showcase status.
South Florida’s top high school teams were back at Sun Life Stadium – Cardinal Gibbons and St. Thomas (Girls) were preceded by University School and Coral Glades (Boys) in the morning – but this year they were also joined by Florida and Syracuse (Division 1 Women’s) and Michigan and Army (Division 1 Men’s).
With Florida not a traditional lacrosse hotbed, this was an unprecedented opportunity, especially for members of local youth teams, to enjoy some high-level college lacrosse and sharpen up their skills, too.
Before young fans filled the stands to watch the college games, an hour-long lacrosse clinic, hosted by Warrior Lacrosse, and open to youth players K-8, was held, allowing youth players to work on their stick-handling and shot-making.
The first game of the college doubleheader pitted Florida’s women’s lacrosse team, unbeaten and No. 2 in the NCAA, against rival No.4-Syracuse.
Florida’s women’s program, coached by former All-American midfielder Amanda O’Leary, is a microcosm of what is happening to the sport on a full-scale level.
After a successful 14-year run coaching at Yale University, O’Leary sought out a new professional challenge: bring lacrosse from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic to the Sunshine State and build a successful program from scratch.
In just its third year of existence the Florida women’s lacrosse team made it all the way to the national semifinal, falling to eventual national runner-up Syracuse.
On Saturday, the Gators had a chance reignite their new rivalry, of course, and this time they came out on top, downing Syracuse, 14-10.
Behind a mostly partisan crowd intent on bringing some Gainesville flavor to Sun Life, Florida raced out to a quick 3-0 advantage in the first six minutes – a lead it would never relinquish – to seize control. Without having to play catch up, the Gators could rely on a ball-control offense, keeping possession away from Syracuse and attacking the net once they broke down the defense.
Every time Syracuse made a run, Florida had an answer, expanding its lead and pulling away for good late in the second half.
The night cap, Michigan vs. Army, was the first-ever meeting between the two programs — it, too, an example of where the sport’s been and where it’s going.
Michigan, a club power for decades, decided to make the jump to varsity Division 1 status last season. It did so, however, without the luxury of a few full recruiting classes, forcing players to adjust to a new heightened level of competition on the fly.
The Wolverines put up a valiant effort on Saturday night, though it wasn’t enough to beat a seasoned Army team, led by senior attackman Garrett Thul, the game’s MVP, whose scoring and playmaking ability helped the Black Knights secure a resounding 12-1 win.
Thul’s seven-goal night helped him set the school scoring record, which had previously stood for 35 years.