GAINESVILLE — Amanda O'Leary was traveling around the country in 2007 selling little more than dreams and promises.
She was more than two years away from coaching Florida's inaugural women's lacrosse season. There were no facilities, just a large portion of land and some blueprints of a proposed $14 million state-of-the art stadium and practice facility.
She told high school lacrosse players about her vision of building a championship program, then sold them on the program by focusing on what Florida already had.
"We sold all the other sports that are here," said O'Leary, whose team went 10-8 last year in its first season. "… Come here and win championships because that's what we do."
Four years ago, Ashley Bruns of Ellicott City, Md., didn't even realize Florida was adding lacrosse. But in the midst of her recruiting visit before her high school junior year, she found herself among other recruits sitting in a conference room with O'Leary and UF athletic director Jeremy Foley. And somehow she was sold.
"I was actually the second person to commit here," said Bruns, who was a first-team all-conference attacker this season. "Nothing was built yet. It was just dirt. For me, personally, just hearing the vision, they made some great promises. They told us they wanted to be the best. And I wanted to be the best."
Today, the No. 4 Florida lacrosse team (15-3) will host Stanford (16-2) in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Gators join Boston College and Albany as first-time participants in this year's NCAA field. The major difference? The latter two began their programs in 1992.
"I'm still in shock that we're doing so well," said sophomore Brittany Dashiell, from Bel Air, Md. (Only two Gators players are from Florida.) "We weren't expecting to get this far at all back in the fall. But then as soon as we saw in the fall games how well we were doing against the top teams we were playing, we were like, 'Hey, in the spring there's definitely a possibility to go far.' So we came together and worked hard every day to make sure we got here."
It has been a meteoric rise. At the insistence of Foley, Florida joined the highly competitive American Lacrosse Conference, which includes five-time NCAA champion Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, Ohio State and Penn State.
"I asked him, 'Are you sure?' because I was uncertain about that," O'Leary said, "and he said, 'To be the best, you have to beat the best; we want to be the best.' "
This season, Florida has been ranked as high as No. 2, and fell just short of winning its first conference tournament title (a 10-9 loss to Northwestern this past week).
The Gators have the 14th-ranked offense in the nation, averaging 13.72 goals per game, but will face a Stanford team that has been ranked in the top 10 all season and has the No. 2 scoring offense (16.21). Florida is 11-0 at home this season, but the Gators understand this won't be an easy task.
"They have the player of the year of their conference and the rookie of the year of their conference so this will be quite a matchup for us," said O'Leary, the ALC coach of the year.
The Gators are the No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, and the tide has changed quickly. No longer can Florida sneak up on teams. How that factors into the tournament may determine how far the Gators can advance.
"It's a unique experience for us because we came into a lot of games early on in the season as the underdogs, but we're not those underdogs anymore," O'Leary said. "We're the team that has the target on their backs. If there's a maturity that needs to happen, it's that. We need to come out and recognize we're not the underdogs anymore. Teams are going to want to come out and want to beat us, and need to beat us. So that's something we're going to focus on. … We want to win, that's what we do. That's why these young ladies came to the University of Florida. They came to win championships. We want to go as far as we can."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her coverage at gators.tampabay.com.