during the Gators' game against the Johns Hopkins Blue Jays on Friday, May 10, 2019 at UNC Soccer & Lacrosse Stadium in Chapel Hill, NC / UAA Communications photo by Andy Mead

Shannon Kavanagh: The captain of the Gators lacrosse team through COVID-19

A typo in a small-town newspaper in New York spawned a lengthy, successful career in lacrosse for Shannon Kavanagh.

An advertisement for a lacrosse league for girls in second grade and up mistakenly dropped the minimum requirement to kindergarten. So, kindergarten-aged Kavanagh began playing the sport earlier than expected — or allowed. Years later, she’s the returning captain of a strong Florida Gators lacrosse team looking to get back to its pre-COVID-19 success despite the pandemic still raging on.

“(Lacrosse) has definitely been a huge part of my life for even longer than that,” Kavanagh said, referencing her family’s affinity for the sport before she even picked up a stick. “It was definitely cool to be able to get involved in travel and get recruited and be able to come to such an amazing school.”

Getting started at Florida

The Florida lacrosse program is younger than Kavanagh’s lacrosse career. The school began fielding a team in the popular Northeastern sport in 2010 and immediately saw success. Seven winning seasons to begin the sport’s tenure allowed the Gators to secure a commitment from Kavanagh in 2017

In Kavanagh, UF was getting an Under Armour and U.S. Lacrosse All-American who graduated from Smithtown East High School later that year. Though Florida’s program is still relatively new, the team has seen great success in the Big East and now in the American Athletic Conference. The Gators have yet to have a losing season, consistently rank in the top 25 in the Inside Lacrosse Poll and are a mainstay in the postseason. Kavanagh not only continued that success but helped further it.

Gators coach Amanda O’Leary invited Kavanagh to Gainesville for an official visit. The recruit fell in love with the college town and the program she would soon pledge to.

“I think it was just the overall atmosphere, the school spirit — it was awesome,” Kavanagh said. “I always wanted to go to a bigger football school, the weather was great, the team was so close — which I loved — and you don’t always see that at other schools. So it was just a really fitting environment for me.”

Kavanagh showed how well she fit in at UF when she started all 42 games her freshman and sophomore seasons. She won numerous Big East accolades and led the team in assists both seasons. With her success came the Gators’. Florida went 31-11 in Kavanagh’s first two seasons in orange and blue and the team was undefeated in conference play.

Those first two years built a strong foundation for Kavanagh to explode her junior season. She made the leap to lead the team in goals for the first time in her career and the No. 14 Gators began the season with back-to-back ranked wins over No. 18 Colorado and No. 1 Maryland. Kavanagh poured in a season-best eight goals against the Terrapins.

“I think it just really came down to having confidence in each other,” Kavanagh said of the early success.

When the pandemic hit

The Gators were 6-2, held the No. 8 ranking and were fresh off a win over No. 19 Navy in early March when the world changed forever.

The COVID-19 pandemic was deemed too dangerous for college sports — and a whole lot else — to continue. So, seasons were paused, then scrapped altogether. 

Last season ended differently than previous ones. Florida did not get bounced in a dazzling playoff run. There was no postseason. The Gators hadn’t even played any conference games before the powers that be in college sports said “enough.”

during the Gators’ 25-6 win against the Cincinnati Bearcats on Saturday, April 27, 2019 at Donald R. Dizney Stadium in Gainesville, FL / UAA Communications photo by Tim Casey

“I definitely think our shortened season, as sad as it was that it ended, it was pretty important for us,” Kavanagh said. “I think we did get to make a big statement and I think it kind of showed teams in the NCAA, ‘Hey, we’re not here to mess around, we are a strong program and we can hang with those top teams. It sucks that it got cut short because I really do believe we would’ve made it really far.”

Kavanagh said when the season was put on pause, there was hope within the program that it would resume. Though Florida is an SEC school, it plays in the American for lacrosse. So, maybe there would be a way to keep the season alive.

Once schedules were moved around, the team resumed practice that same week in March. The team was jovial at practice, Kavanagh said. But after practice, word became official — no more college lacrosse, for this year at last.

“The coaches called me, Cara Trombetta and Emily Petillo, who were all captains last season into their office just to discuss things. We walked out, a few minutes later… not even a few minutes later, it was probably 30 seconds after that, they called us back in and kind of broke the news. The three of us were just so upset.”

After that, isolation began. Kavanagh wanted to finish out the school year in Gainesville after classes moved online in mid-March, but she opted not to when worry about state borders closing crept in. Soon after, Burleigh contacted players and their parents and recommended they return home. Kavanagh’s older brother, Michael, whom she picked up lacrosse from, flew to Jacksonville to meet her and from there they drove back home to New York, the COVID-19 epicenter of the summer.

“It was a fun, 16-hour drive back to Long Island,” she said.

Kavanagh admitted safety restrictions in New York were more stringent than in Florida. She was isolated in her house with her family for months. Only short walks outside offered an escape from the inside. The family time was appreciated, she said, but the circumstances weren’t.

Eventually, that time passed and Kavanagh returned to Florida, a COVID-19 epicenter in its own right, for her senior season.

Looking ahead to a full season

College sports like a lot of things have made a comeback this fall. There have been bumps — like the Gators football team having an outbreak resulting in game postponements — but seasons are chugging on. The lacrosse team is preparing for its spring season as the weather turns Florida cold.

Kavanagh lives with some of her teammates and they are all on board with the safety protocols necessary to play a season in a few months’ time. She said workouts are going well.

“It’s really comforting to know they are doing everything they can to guarantee us a season and ensure that we play,” Kavanagh said. “It definitely feels great to know we have such a great athletic director who’s really pushing for us to try to get our seasons in.”

During the Gators’ game against the Colorado Buffalos on Saturday, February 8, 2020 at Donald R. Dizney Stadium in Gainesville, FL / UAA Communications photo by Courtney Culbreath

There have been plenty of COVID-19-related bumps in the roads for sports teams and beyond since Kavanagh and the Gators’ dream season was cut short. There are sure to be more as the team gears up for a February restart. But Kavanagh is ready to resume playing the sports she’s been drawn to since her parents saw that newspaper ad. And in the years since, she’s gotten pretty good at it.

That’s why she’s ready to lead the Gators in 2021, possibly on the other side of the pandemic — or through it.

“I’m just really pumped for this season coming and just really pumped for there being an NCAA Tournament, ” Kavanagh said, “and a decent amount of a season so we can continue to put Florida on the map.”

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