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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Florida will count on youth in home opener against FIU

On the surface, the No. 7 UF women's soccer team looks like an experienced, senior-heavy squad.

In Friday's season-opening win against Miami, the Gators (1-0-0) started seven fourth-year players, and the game's lone goal came when seniors Tricia Townsend and Ashlee Elliott connected on a pass that Elliott headed in.

But the roster is brimming with youth. Freshmen and sophomores comprise 75 percent of the team, and five newcomers saw action last week.

One reason for the Gators' lopsided roster is an unimpressive 2007 signing class that consisted of only four players. When UF takes on Florida International (1-0-0) tonight at 7, defender Nicky Kit will be the only remaining Gator from that class.

Midfielder Karly Findorff left UF for UCLA after an injury-ridden freshmen year, and Meghan Berlingo transferred to Washington State this past offseason.

Coach Becky Burleigh compensated for the small group the next year by signing 14 players, the Gators' deepest class since the inaugural group in 1995. Last year, then-freshmen Tahnai Annis, Jazmyne Avant and Lindsay Thompson played in every game.

Against Miami, UF coach Becky Burleigh started two freshmen, midfielder Erika Tymrak and defender Kathryn Williamson. While they both got their first college starts in Coral Gables, the paths they took to get there are much different.

Williamson redshirted last year after unsuccessfully rehabbing her torn ACL. She originally injured her knee making an awkward cut during a Thanksgiving tournament with the Texas-based D'Feeters Soccer Club.

"My knee went one way and my body went the other," she said.

Williamson said she pushed herself too hard during rehab trying to prepare for her first season at UF, eventually forcing her to have a second surgery last August.

She was reduced to a cheerleader last year but said everyone on the team - regardless of playing time - was so enthusiastic on the sidelines that she grew into her role.

That is not to say she was content, though.

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"I wanted to be out there so bad," she said.

Burleigh announces UF's starting lineup on Thursdays so the unit can jell before the upcoming weekend matches. Many fringe players, Williamson included, nervously await the announcement.

When she finally heard her name called, Williamson tried not to get too excited for fear of a letdown.

"I still was hesitant because I didn't know," she said. "People could change (the lineup) at the last minute."

The same month Williamson suffered the injury that set her back 21 months, Tymrak played right midfield for the U.S. National team at the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup.

Tymrak, a 2009 Parade All-American, played in three of the team's six matches and recorded assists in wins against Germany and Korea Republic.

Team practices under U.S. coach Kazbek Tambi helped her prepare for college soccer.

"(Tambi) always had us play with guys, so we were used to playing quicker," Tymrak said. "And college is quicker and faster than club soccer."

But even though she was able to handle the speed, Tymrak needed the veterans to teach her how to play in UF's formations, specifically when to drop back on defense and when to attack.

"I play in the (midfield) and Angela Napolitano plays in there with me, so she would help me. And then Lauren Hyde and Ashlee (Elliott) would help me defensively, pulling me back," she said. "Basically everyone on the field would give me clues to help me out."

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