When redshirt senior Kat Williamson suffered a meniscus tear in her right knee against FIU on Sept. 2, freshman center back Christen Westphal lost her mentor.
But with Williamson, an All-American center back, out indefinitely, Westphal has learned to fend for herself.
Of Florida’s nine true freshmen, she has logged the most minutes — 84.8 per game — and has played the entirety of eight matches.
Westphal has been a key cog for UF in its five-game winning streak. The defense has allowed only four goals and 26 shots during the unbeaten stretch.
“It’s kind of like an honor, in a way, to be able to play with girls that experienced and that good,” Westphal said. “It makes coming here a lot better.”
When Westphal arrived on campus this past summer, the Cuyahoga Falls (Ohio) Walsh Jesuit High graduate immediately impressed the Florida coaching staff with her work ethic.
“She handles the fitness work that we do with very little drama, really no drama,” coach Becky Burleigh said. “She also has the ability to mentally push herself. She’s not just trying to survive a workout. She’s really trying to exceed the expectations of the times we set.”
Westphal said she never gets complacent during training.
“They don’t promise any playing time to any player,” she said. “If I was behind when I got here, I wouldn’t necessarily be getting playing time.”
Westphal is still adjusting to the expectations UF coaches have for their center backs. Before joining the Gators, she played center midfield during high school and club competition.
She often looks to Williamson for advice.
“Playing center back here is a lot different than what I’m used to playing,” Westphal said. “She would explain it in a way maybe the coaches hadn’t. It’s kind of like if I didn’t get it, I could always look for her to explain it to me.”
But since Williamson suffered her injury, Westphal has held Florida’s back line together.
“It’s pretty hard for a freshman to come in and play the center back position, because it’s a big responsibility position,” Burleigh said. “She’s not only done that, but done it with new playing partners once Kat went out. Her consistency has been really remarkable.”
Westphal notched the first point of her collegiate career against Arkansas on Sunday. On a free kick from midfield, Westphal recorded an assist when she set Holly King up for a header that gave UF a 2-0 lead in the 29th minute.
“She doesn’t really get frazzled,” Williamson said. “She’s calm and is really able to just play the game. That’s something that you can’t really teach.”
Westphal will lead the back line in No. 18 Florida’s weekend road matches against LSU tonight at 7:30 and No. 5 Texas A&M (11-1-1, 5-0-1 SEC) on Sunday at 1:30 p.m.
This weekend could mark senior midfielder Erika Tymrak’s (sprained left ankle) return to the Gators (8-3-1, 5-1 SEC). Although Tymrak didn’t specify the match in which she expected to return, she said she plans to play.
Burleigh said she is making sure her team does not overlook LSU (5-4-4, 1-3-2 SEC), which upset Florida 1-0 last year in Gainesville.
The victory was the Tigers’ first in 15 meetings with the Gators.
“That’s sticking with me real close to my heart,” Burleigh said. “That’s first and forefront in my mind.”