Becky Burleigh knows not to overlook South Alabama.
While the Gators (14-6) enter the NCAA Tournament with a No. 3 seed, UF’s coach is wary of one of the nation’s most dangerous mid-major programs.
“South Alabama’s a good team,” Burleigh said. “They have a little international flair with some good international players on their team. They’ve had a lot of success the last few years.”
The two teams will meet for the first time tonight at Donald R. Dizney Stadium at 6 p.m.
But the Jaguars (14-5-1) haven’t just been good as of late, they’ve been one of the most consistent teams in the country over the past five seasons.
When it defeated Coastal Carolina, 5-0, on Sunday, South Alabama earned its fifth straight conference-tournament title, a Sun Belt record.
South Alabama has been consistent in the short term as well, especially on the defensive end.
The Jaguars haven’t allowed a goal since an Oct. 20 win over Louisiana and haven’t allowed two goals in a match since Sept. 1 in a loss to Alabama.
Leading the stingy backline for South Alabama is junior defender Hannah Godfrey. Godfrey, a native of Thornton-Cleveleys, England, started every match for South Alabama and earned Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Alongside Godfrey in the defense is fellow Englishwoman Steffi Hardy. South Alabama has won every match this season when Hardy has played 90 or more minutes, but it’s Steffi’s twin sister, Rio, who’s been the team’s real difference-maker.
Rio Hardy was named Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year and the conference tournament’s most outstanding player. Rio also enters tonight’s match on a seven-game points streak and has scored 13 goals in her last 11 matches.
In order for UF to stop Rio and derail the Jaguars’ defense, Burleigh believes her team has to constantly provide upfield pressure.
“I think that our goal is to try and press them as high up the field as possible, win the ball back early and attack out of that,” Burleigh said.
However, the Gators will have to effectively press South Alabama without one of their speediest forwards, Deanne Rose. Rose, who is currently with the Canada women’s national team, will be replaced in the attack by junior Mayra Pelayo, who played up top in Rose’s absence during the SEC Tournament but more often plays on the wing. If the Gators can survive South Alabama, they’re likely to get Rose back in Round 2.
“We were happy to have the SEC Tournament to have an opportunity to play without (Rose) before the NCAA Tournament,” Burleigh said. “And we just have to do our part and win so she comes back to more games.”
You can follow Mark Stine on Twitter @mstinejr, and contact him at [email protected].