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Florida's women lacrosse a hotbed for local talent

Farmingdale's Janine Hillier Game MVP runs by the

Farmingdale's Janine Hillier Game MVP runs by the Guilderland defense. (June 13, 2009) Photo Credit: Photo by Kevin Colton

The calendar said it was mid-winter, but past the palm trees and coeds in flip-flops, Northport's Katie Ciaci approached the Stephen O'Connell Center on the University of Florida campus.

Inside, the lacrosse recruit found 11,000 fans clad in orange and blue - for a gymnastics meet.

"Where else do you see that?" the Florida freshman said in a recent telephone interview from Gainesville.

Welcome to Gator Country, where football reigns supreme, but national champions come in all shapes and sizes.

A national title was the expectation when athletic director Jeremy Foley hired Amanda O'Leary in the summer of 2007 to be the coach of the new women's lacrosse program for the inaugural 2010 season. Since lacrosse was still a foreign game to most southerners, Florida snatched a proven commodity in O'Leary, who had spent 14 years leading Yale.

The Gators gave her a new $15-million facility, including a 1,500-seat stadium all to themselves - Florida doesn't field a men's team - and all the resources of one of the largest athletic departments in the country. All she needed was a team.

O'Leary began in Maryland (of the 29-player roster, consisting of 24 freshmen, 18 hail from the Old Line State), but she also made sure to establish a pipeline to the place she calls "a mecca of girls lacrosse" - Long Island.

She sent shock waves nationally when Inside Lacrosse magazine tabbed her 2009 recruiting class as tops in the country. Locally, her impact was felt in quality over quantity. Three Long Islanders are playing for the Gators this season, with at least two more on the way.

Ciaci, Janine Hillier of Farmingdale and Natalie Melaniff of Wantagh are members of this year's team. Ciaci was a two-time high school All-American, as was Hillier, who won a Class A state title with the Dalers last season, and Melaniff was All-County.

Commack senior Kelsey Dlugos, an All-County performer, is one of five members of the 2010 recruiting class, but O'Leary's latest coup was a verbal commitment last October from Northport junior Shannon Gilroy, Long Island's leading scorer last season with 113 goals.

"I was sold [on Florida] right away," said Hillier, who has four goals and four assists this season. "When I stepped off the plane and it was 75 degrees, I was like 'OK, I can get used to this.' Then I got to the campus and it's drop-dead gorgeous. It's a perfect place for me."

Ciaci, Hillier and Melaniff chose Florida over traditional powerhouses such as Johns Hopkins, Duke, Notre Dame, Virginia, Ohio State and Maryland, among others.

"One of the major things was that it was a new program and I'd be able to make history down here," said Ciaci, who was the first Long Islander to commit to play in Gainesville. "We have to work toward winning a national championship."

Northport's Gilroy had her pick of the litter when it came to her college search. She acknowledged an interest in Northwestern, the five-time defending NCAA champion who scooped up seven of the best Long Island players the past two years, including New York State's all-time leading scorer Shannon Smith of West Babylon. But, like her former teammate Ciaci, Gilroy wanted to blaze her own trail.

"I wanted to go to a school that I can help win a national championship instead of insisting to win one," she said. "I couldn't find one thing I didn't like at Florida, so I went with my gut feeling."

Gilroy's early commitment was yet another shot across the bow of the traditional powerhouses, but O'Leary, who can't comment on recruits until they are signed, said a recruiting class can't truly be judged until it has a full body of work. But, she added, "You can wake up every morning with a big smile on your face knowing you're getting the top recruits in the country," she said.

Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, who was recruited by O'Leary to play at Maryland when O'Leary was an assistant there, wrote in an e-mail: "[O'Leary] has had a lot of time to focus on recruiting in the last two years and she has done a tremendous job."

Things have been "a roller-coaster ride" thus far, according to O'Leary, with her freshmen-laden club at 5-3 on the season with losses to No. 3 North Carolina, No. 5 Georgetown and Johns Hopkins.

The standing room only crowd of 2,114 for the program's debut, a 16-6 win over Jacksonville, wasn't the same kind of crowd at the gymnastics meet Ciaci attended as a recruit. But she and her L.I. sisters are well on their way toward putting lacrosse on the map in Central Florida.

"Long Island produces some of the best lax players out there," Ciaci said. "And we want to be the best down here."

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