A funny thing happened on Rollins' irreverent path to the NCAA final four—the Tars got really good.
Wearing her distinctive war paint, defender Tricia Grant '13 cheers on her teammates. (Photo by Judy Watson Tracy) The center spot in collegiate photo composite often goes to the group’s sweetheart—a member of the opposite sex who holds a special status. This year, the Rollins women’s lacrosse team gave that spot to Bodhi Short, the young son of coach Dennis Short.
The Tars did not ask their coach’s permission to take his son’s hand as sweetheart. Nor did they ask whether they could adorn him in the same Steve Urkel glasses they would all wear. Or whether they could wear them in their own photos. Rollins isn’t that kind of team, and Short isn’t that kind of coach.
“I don’t think any other coach would say, ‘Go for it, you guys look cool,’” said Erica Pagliarul ’13, who led Rollins with 46 goals in 2012. “We are absolutely insane, but he is just as crazy.”
The Tars are many things. Funny, humble, and slightly insane.
And in 2012—six years after Rollins rolled out its first team, five years after 70 percent of the team was cut and just a few months after they finally got to play on campus—they were NCAA Division II semifinalists.
“If you see us off the field, there’s no way you’d say, ‘There goes a top team in the country,’” Short said. “We’re out there, but we work too hard to not have fun.”
Rollins has earned the right to be weird.
After stints at Ohio State and Albany, Short and his wife, Chrissy, a tennis coach, decided Winter Park, Florida, would be a warmer place to raise their family. Short coached boys’ lacrosse at Ocoee High.
The Rollins job opened in December 2006. Short began formulating a master plan for the program four months before his interview. He did not account for a rushed timeline, but Rollins wanted a team the following spring.
Short stopped and laughed when asked about that first season. It’s funny now. He found three players with significant lacrosse experience. The rest were cobbled together, filled by anyone on campus who looked athletic and wanted to play.
That inaugural team started 3-9 in early April 2008. Short cut 10 players and canceled the rest of the season.
Courtney Bianculli ’13 was one of the four players not cut from that first team.
“We were kind of outcasts,” said Bianculli, who thanks to a two-year detour is playing out her final season as a graduate student. “With a majority of the team being on Side A and four of us on Side B, people just didn’t relate to our side of the story. After that move it was like, ‘Well, this is not serious.’”
It seemed ridiculous at the time, but Short said he had a five-year plan to reach an NCAA championship. It required a drastic measure. “A lot of people were looking at me like I was crazy,” Short said. “I said, ‘I believe, but you have to let me do it in a different way.’ Fortunately my athletic director supported me. It was the best decision we ever made.”
Rollins went 12-3 the next season. Short was able to recruit players with lacrosse experience, and more importantly, players who fit academically and philosophically.
In 2010, the Tars went 9-5. In 2011, they were 13-4. They never lost to an unranked team. But they also never played a game on campus. The field at Rollins was designed specifically for soccer. The Tars staged home game nights at nine different locations in the greater Orlando area.
They chose to laugh about it.
“It was a coping mechanism,” Pagliarulo said. “How much could we really argue as players? Do we really need a field that bad? I’d rather put my energy into everything we can control.”
Drives to practice turned into 15-minute bonding trips—upperclassmen driving underclassmen, providing a closeness they might have never developed in more convenient confines on campus.
The team’s composite photo, with coach Dennis Short’s son in the center spot. “That’s a life lesson,” senior Mo Imel ’13 said. “Things don’t always go as planned. We had a lot of adversity. That’s the ultimate reason why we play, to learn these lessons. That’s also why we want to have as much fun as possible.”
Imel knows more than most. A Maryland native, she transferred from Division I Oregon before last season to be closer to her younger sister Keeley, who was dying of brain cancer: Keeley, 18, passed away in April 2012, but not before spending the season with her sister in Florida and attending most of her games. “She was with us the whole way,” Imel said.
Those games were the first Rollins ever played on campus at the revamped Barker Family Stadium. Friends, family, classmates, and teachers could finally learn what lacrosse was.
Rollins went 15-2 in 2012 and was the top-scoring team in Division II during the regular season. The Tars push the ball with tempo and purpose. Goalie Elyse De Lisle ’14 often functions as a 12th field player, and Short liberally subs all 26 players, logging their shifts on an iPad in a manner consistent with his hockey background. Rollins beat perennial powers Limestone, Stonehill, and Lock Haven, making its case as the top Division II team in the South.
The Tars beat Stonehill again as part of a 3-0 start to the 2013 season.
They have earned the right to be weird.
“We look at our picture and it’s us,” Pagliarulo said. “You see other teams, no offense to them, and they’re put together with hair and makeup. That’s not us. We’re not serious enough to do that.”
The Tars may not take themselves too seriously. But the rest of Division II and at least, their school, certainly do now.
Originally published in Lacrosse Magazine.