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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Gators must win out for seniors to win fourth SEC soccer title

The view is unfamiliar, and it doesn't seem right.

Lauren Hyde, a senior with three Southeastern Conference titles under her belt, is used to looking down from the top. Today, though, she needs to crane her neck to glance at where she has so often been and where she wants to be again.

Tonight, as No. 12 UF (11-4-2, 5-1-2 SEC) hosts No. 17 LSU (10-3-3, 6-1-1 SEC) at 7, Hyde and the other three seniors hope to prove they are still the conference's dominant class.

Despite being in third place with only a week of SEC play left, the Gators still control their own destiny.

As the Gators start this pivotal three-match stretch, they have the benefit of facing the two teams that are ahead of them at home, with LSU coming to Gainesville today and South Carolina arriving Oct. 30.

If Florida wins its final three matches, it will jump South Carolina and LSU, taking another SEC Championship and giving the seniors the view they have grown accustomed to during their time in Gainesville.

But in order to do that, things need to change.

"We have to be a lot more aggressive on the field, and we have to have a lot more intensity as well," Hyde said. "…We've kind of come out a little slow in these games on the road."

That lack of urgency, specifically away from Gainesville, is the reason the Gators find themselves in a series of must-win situations in their next three matches. The problem first manifested itself Oct. 2 at perennial SEC bottom-feeder Mississippi State, which managed a 1-1 tie against Florida.

"Our players take a lot of pride in our play in the SEC, and I think what's been a little disappointing for us this year was the fact that we gave up some opportunities," UF coach Becky Burleigh said.

But while the team has struggled on the road, Florida's play at James G. Pressly Stadium has been almost as solid as possible. The team is 9-1-0 at home, with the only loss coming in overtime against No. 7 Florida State in a match Burleigh described as the best her team played this year.

"Traveling wears you down a little bit, so hopefully that aspect gets to them," sophomore Lindsay Thompson said.

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Besides its traveling woes, the only other reason for Florida's underperformance thus far is its youth. With 23 underclassmen on the roster, some of the players did not understand how difficult winning the SEC would be before the season started, Hyde said.

"The girls coming in have seen, like, 'Oh, they've won in the past. This may be easier than it seems,'" she said. "And being a senior that's won (the SEC) the last three years, I know, and the rest of us know, that it's not."

If the team did not realize how tough conference play would be, it does now. Luckily for the seniors, they still have time to go out on top, albeit in an unfamiliar way.

"You're the underdog," Burleigh said of her squad. "I can't think that anyone would look at the remaining schedule and think that we're the favorites to win the SEC."

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