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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Gators start tough stretch after easy opening slate

So far this season, Becky Burleigh's squad hasn't tipped its hand.

The Gators have played three games, and they've won all of them. But those were better classified as tune-ups, not measuring sticks.

No. 6 UF's only win over a team that played in last year's NCAA Championship came in the season opener against Miami, a team that was bounced in the first round.

When the Gators (3-0-0) take on Indiana (3-0-0) today, that soft-opponent trend will continue. The Hoosiers were a below-.500 team last year, and although they are unbeaten so far this season, their victories have come against teams from less-established conferences like the Mid-American Conference and the Missouri Valley Conference.

But come Sunday, the Gators will finally get a real test. Their game against No. 8 UCLA (1-1-1) will be the first of four straight matchups against top-20 teams.

The Bruins represent a powerhouse, having won six straight Pacific-10 Conference championships. Last year's squad reached the NCAA semifinals before losing to eventual national champions North Carolina 1-0.

UCLA has gotten off to a rough start this year, getting trounced in a season-opening rematch with No. 1 North Carolina 7-2, then tying No. 12 San Diego.

Keeper Katie Fraine said UF does not see the Bruins' poor start as evidence of a down year.

The Gators expect a tough non-conference schedule. Since 2004, the team has played 18 games against preseason top-25 teams before Southeastern Conference matchups began.

"Playing a challenging schedule gets you to know your team really well and exposes your weaknesses," Burleigh said.

Burleigh said she schedules tough opponents so her team can prepare for SEC games, and Fraine reiterated that point.

"If we play a bunch of woozy teams before we go into our conference, we're just going to get our butts whooped (against SEC teams)," she said.

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Since 2004, the Gators are 42-7-6 against SEC teams, while their record in matchups with ranked teams is a mediocre 7-7-1.

Most members of the team claim their goal is to win the SEC championship, but Burleigh's decision to constantly flood UF's schedule with top-tier opponents suggests she is preparing the Gators for possible games in the later rounds of the NCAA Championships.

During the next three weekends, the Gators will take on three of the teams that reached the national quarterfinals last year.

Burleigh said the team's approach to a game is the same regardless of the opponent's quality, but some of her players don't share that opinion.

"It's easier for a team to get pumped for a UCLA or a Duke rather than an FIU," Fraine said.

Other players said their motivation during offseason workouts came from thinking about ranked teams.

"(Before the season begins), we prepare a little more for the top-20 teams because we know they're going to be a greater challenge than maybe some of the other teams," sophomore Lindsay Thompson said.

Thompson has played midfield since coming to Gainesville, but she was moved to forward during Sunday's game against South Florida after Ashlee Elliot tore her ACL. She is expected to stay at Elliot's position during this weekend's games.

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