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UF lacrosse twins Emily, Hannah Heller are double trouble entering NCAA Tournament

GAINESVILLE — Florida lacrosse star Emily Heller arrived May 29, 2001, one minute prior to sister Hannah as their mother, Diane, delivered twins via C-section.

The race was on.

These days, the No. 9 Gators are following the lead of the two speedy sisters.

The Hellers’ competitive spirit, athletic prowess and unwavering connection have helped spur Amanda O’Leary’s senior-laden squad to a school-record 17-game winning streak entering Friday’s NCAA Tournament opener with No. 16 UNC — the last team to defeat UF, 19-10, on Feb. 17.

“It was eating me all season; that’s the game I like wanted back so badly,” Emily Heller told The Orlando Sentinel. “There’s not many chances where you get to redeem yourself.”

Even rarer are twin sisters who spent four seasons at different schools before reuniting for one last hurrah.

The NCAA’s COVID-19 waiver allowed Hannah Heller to transfer from UMass to UF, where her “older” sister had evolved into one of the most complete players in school history.

“We never planned on playing together again,” Hannah said. “I’m very grateful. It almost gives you like flashbacks to high school and when we were younger.”

During separate interviews staged an hour apart, the sisters called the experience, “a full-circle moment” — an example of the Hellers’ penchant to echo each other.

“I feel like I almost know what she’s thinking,” Emily said.

Together, the Hellers have spelled double trouble for Florida’s foes.

Emily is one of three players in program history with 100 goals, 100 ground balls and 200 draw controls.

“I like to do a little bit of everything,” she said. “I help out where it’s needed — just be everywhere.”

Hannah is a lockdown defender also able to ignite the Gators’ transition game through the midfield.

“Hannah has the ability to shut down any attacker that she wants,” O’Leary said.

The Hellers’ games are built on grit, athleticism and alacrity.

“There’s one common question that always everyone asks is, ‘Who’s faster?'” Hannah said.

Emily doesn’t give an inch to anyone, even her twin. She also gives credit where due.

“Em doesn’t like to lose at anything,” O’Leary said. “But I’m glad she gave Hannah the nod, because she’s faster.”

The Hellers have pushed each other since Day 1, with a future together in sports preordained at their West Babylon, N.Y. home.

Mike, their father, played football at Penn State as did his brother Ron, who went on to play offensive tackle for 12 NFL seasons. Emily’s and Hannah’s paternal grandfather has grandchildren who earned Division I scholarships.

Early on, the twins played soccer and basketball before trying lacrosse in the third grade.

“I didn’t necessarily want to do it, but Emily was like, ‘No, we’re going to do it,'” Hannah recalled. “I was like, ‘OK, whatever, we’ll just do the same thing.'”

Success, scholarship offers and ultimately a difficult decision followed. After making official visits together, the Hellers chose different paths.

Hannah opted for UMass, four hours north of their Long Island home and less than 25,000 students for a more intimate setting. Emily headed a 1,000 miles south to a massive university with an athletic department anchored by a big-time football program.

The Hellers overcame separation anxiety to excel in new surroundings. Yet, the chance to play together again offered a fitting climax to their careers.

“We’re both our own person,” Hannah said. “But we complete each other, too.”

O’Leary calls the reunion, “a dream come true for the parents.”

The Gators aim to keep their dream season alive. Since 13-12 overtime win Feb. 24 against No. 5 Maryland ignited the record run, Florida has outscored opponents by an average of 13 goals.

“I love the wave that we’re riding,” O’Leary said.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com