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Friday, March 31, 2023

Gators hope to get past Round of 16 after two years of elimination

No one on the UF soccer team has forgotten how the last two seasons ended - not even this year's 16 freshmen.

The Gators have been eliminated in the Round of 16 both times.

On Sunday, they have their chance to end that streak against Texas A&M at James G. Pressly Stadium at 1 p.m.

The memories of the losses are still vivid in the upperclassmen's heads, and they have been passing those images down to the newcomers.

"We've spoken with the freshmen about (what to expect), to put their minds right and explain what we have been through losing the past two years," junior defender Lauren Hyde said.

With the large group of freshmen replacing the eight seniors from last year's squad, many did not expect the Gators back in the Round of 16. UF was thought to be in a rebuilding year.

The Gators put that notion to rest by going undefeated in regular season Southeastern Conference play.

"Everyone called this year a 'rebuilding' year for us, so going into the season, that's kind of disheartening to you," Hyde said. "You don't want to be called that, so to be able to show those people that this hasn't been a rebuilding year, and we have a really good chance to make it past where any one has been from last year's team, is going to be a really big step."

Most of those claims of rebuilding came from outside the team, because from the beginning of the season, one of the goals the Gators set was to make it past the Round of 16.

UF coach Becky Burleigh never doubted her team would reach its goals, but with so many new faces, she did not know what to expect from the team early in the season.

"We had so many unknowns with this many freshmen," she said. "Not only do you not know what they are going to bring, but it's also difficult to know how they are going to mesh.

"Early in the season, that was tough to tell, but as the season progresses, we certainly saw signs that this team had something intangible."

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Losing eight seniors, all of whom played significant time last season, usually would hurt a team's chemistry.

But this year's squad has come together to develop more of a team-first attitude than in the past.

Not only do the Gators feel they have a better mindset to handle the match versus the Aggies, they also hold home-field advantage, something they did not have the previous two years.

Both years, UF had to make trips to California - it faced Southern Cal in 2007 and UCLA the year before. Elliott said the trips really took tolls on the team.

The Gators will need to take advantage of the comfort of playing at home if they are to end the streak and silence the thoughts of outsiders.

"When someone thinks of Florida, (they are) like, 'Oh, well they lose in the Sweet 16,'" Hyde said. "But this year, I feel, is going to be different."

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