30 in 30: Is Saint Leo the Next Sunshine State Success Story? - Written by Mark Macyk
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With sunshine, Disney World and all the oranges you can eat, who wouldn't want to play college lacrosse in Florida?
Six years ago few could, because there were no teams. But since then in Division II, Rollins has proven Florida can support a powerhouse, going from new program to final four participant in just five seasons. Florida Southern started a team last year and finished ranked 15th in the country.
There's a third D-II team in Florida, at Saint Leo, outside Tampa. The Lions were also new in 2012. They're going to be better this season. Is Saint Leo the next Sunshine State success story?
Saint Leo (5-9) didn't have the same Year One success as Florida Southern (12-4), but when you consider it lost six of its first seven games, against teams like Rollins and Limestone, the record doesn't look as bad. And that was with a small roster filled with underclassmen and several players with no lacrosse experience.
Saint Leo has 14 new players this season, all recruited for lacrosse. The newcomers nearly outnumber the returners.
"The hardest thing with starting a program is that by the end of the season our roster was pretty small," Saint Leo coach Lesley Graham said. "At that point you don't have anyone pushing you to be better because you already have a starting spot. What's so great about this year is every single one of these freshmen have a way to make an immediate impact and the upperclassmen will have someone pushing them."
Last fall saw four teams struggling to share one muddy field. Some squads would begin practice at 6 a.m., some would go until 9 p.m. Not any more. Last month, Saint Leo dedicated a brand new $14.4 million turf field. It's just another step toward the big time.
The Lions wrap up their fall season with a scrimmage on Nov. 10 and until then will continue use the time to teach the system an see how the new players fit. That's a drastic difference from 2011.
"Last fall was a lot more teaching of the fundamentals," Graham said. "[This year it's] making sure that what you learned in high school is going to translate to the college level. Exposing them to the pace of the game."
What those players experienced in high school differs based on who you're talking to. The Lions have a core of 10 homegrown players from Florida, but also boast players from New York, Missouri, Delaware, Minnesota, Texas, Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts.
"We're an equal opportunity employer here at St. Leo," Graham said. "There are some really talented kids in Florida. We went to non-traditional areas and got killer athletes from Minnesota [Cassie Miller] and Texas [Allie Sheftall]. It's nice that kids are getting the chance to showcase their talents and it's not just Maryland, New York, New Jersey. Granted, I love those kids, but it's nice to give these overlooked players a chance. There are people who still think Florida doesn't know what lacrosse is."
Many Long Islanders are known to retire to Florida, but the core of the incoming freshman class has made the move 50 years early. And while the roster is diverse, it's that balance between the Floridians and Long Islanders that should have Saint Leo contending soon.
One of those Floridians, senior Alyssa Viscomi, played basketball at Saint Leo for two years, before opting to join the new lacrosse team. Last fall she learned the finer rules of the game and now she offers athleticism – and the leadership that comes from four years of college athletics – on a team that's only existed for two.
Long Island's Stephanie Marran transferred in from Post University in Connecticut before last season and promptly led the team with 45 goals. LI freshman Paige Leggio hasn't played yet this fall but should have a huge impact in the spring.
"She's a spitfire," Graham said. "She brings such a level of intensity. She's a whole whopping 5-foot-1, but watch out if she's coming for you."
"She's aggressive but smart with her aggression," Graham said. "And she kills it in the weight room."
The spring will see the addition of Leggio from injury and Marran from soccer, so the product should be even better than it's looked so far.
They'll need the help. Saint Leo's Southern location makes it an ideal winter vacation for top Northern teams. The Lions open in February with Long Island-based Molloy, then host Adelphi a few days later.
"I don't want a schedule of easy wins," Graham said. "Don't get me wrong, those games are nice, but I'd rather have to battle hard. Even if you come out with a close loss, you learn more about the sport and your own character from that."