Florida's nascent lacrosse powerhouse came to the Carrier Dome in Syracuse with revenge for last year's NCAA Tournament loss on their minds. After Syracuse's 13-9 win over the Gators, the wonderful women who built this program will leave it this evening without that revenge, and with a bitter taste in their mouths after one of the sweetest possible beginnings for a brand-new program.
Florida never had the upper hand in this game, which was played on the road by virtue of NCAA Tournament seeding that gave the Gators the No. 5 national seed despite wins over the No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4 seeds. And Florida looked out of sorts, on offense and in the midfield, especially, in their first trip to the Carrier Dome — the Gators fell in a 2-0 hole, battled back to lead 3-2 and 4-3, but never led in the second half.
13 turnovers also squandered precious possessions to a Syracuse team that leaned on Kayla Treanor (three goals, one assist) and Alyssa Murray (two goals, one assist) to make plays on offense and get the Orange out in front. All seven of the goals Treanor and Murray had a hand in came in Syracuse's first 10 goals, and stuck Florida with a 10-6 hole with just under 14 minutes to play.
The Gators couldn't muster any easy offense on the day, much less consistent good shots, and fought hard just to keep the Orange from running all the way away, scoring three goals in the game's final eight minutes and cutting Syracuse's lead to three goals with 1:48 to go. But Syracuse won its 12th draw control of the day on the faceoff immediately after that goal, and added another goal of its own to essentially end the Florida comeback attempt.
Florida's loss wasn't the same as their collapse against Syracuse last year, when the Orange rallied from a five-goal deficit in the final seven minutes of play and prevailed in an overtime with controversial calls aplenty to deny the Gators their first trip to the NCAA Tournament final, but this one may hurt more: For Florida's 13 seniors, 12 of whom who have been with the program since its inaugural season in 2010, this was the last chance to handle unfinished business, and take a team from its start to the stars.
For those players, like Kitty Cullen (two goals and an assist), Brittany Dashiell (four draw controls), and Mikey Meagher (12 saves on 29 shots), this will hurt for a long, long time, and perhaps forever. This is true of the end of any athlete's career that never featured a trip all the way to the top, but it's far more painful when those athletes get as close as Florida's did, and, frankly, seems like the wrong ending for this precocious, audacious team, which shocked the world of college lacrosse repeatedly en route to this moment.
In time, the sharpness of this pain will fade; the wound will close, and scab, and it'll only really hurt if these players pick at it. But, right now, perhaps their greatest tribute is the truth of how far they've come.
Four years ago, Florida making the NCAA Tournament was unthinkable. Three years ago, it was shocking. Two years ago, taking the No. 1 overall seed was incredible. Now, it's stunning that the Gators are going home.
These Gators didn't get to the mountaintop. But there's a base camp now. And when Florida does get to the peak of this sport, it will be sweeter because of this struggle.