McKenzie Barney and Kat Williamson know all about last year's Southeastern Conference champions.
While the Gators were busy running through every conference rival en route to a perfect SEC record in 2008, Barney and Williamson watched from the sidelines, hobbled by knee injuries.
Tonight at 6, as No. 10 Florida (13-4-2, 7-1-2 SEC) hosts No. 13 South Carolina (15-2-1, 7-2-1 SEC), the Gators will have a chance to live up to the expectations set by last year's team. With a win, UF - the team picked in the preseason to take the conference - will have its fourth-straight SEC title. As the Gators have scrapped back to the top of the conference with five wins in their last six games, the play of Barney and Williamson has been pivotal.
Barney has scored five goals in SEC play and was recently moved from midfielder to starting forward while Williamson has been a staple for the Gators' backline, starting every game this season.
The two redshirt freshmen missed all of their first year with ACL-related injuries.
"When you're hurt as a freshman, it's the toughest thing because you're coming into an already-established social group, and then you're not really a part of it directly," coach Becky Burleigh said. "But I think both (Barney) and Kat's personality lent themselves to being a big part of the team even though they weren't playing."
Barney's problems began as a senior at Sammamish Skyline High in Washington. While practicing with her team in September 2007, Barney made an awkward cut and tore her left ACL.
Barney rehabbed and was healthy again after six months, but on just the third day of preseason practice last season, Barney went for a header along with three other players.
"Knees were everywhere, elbows were everywhere," Barney said. "Someone's leg knocked my knee or something, and I thought I heard the famous 'pop' in the air."
This time, Barney tore her right ACL.
Williamson also tore her ACL in the fall of 2007, but she did not allow her ligament to fully heal. She tried to practice again three months after the tear, and she damaged her patellar tendon in the same knee in April of 2008.
Williamson did not have surgery on her knee for another three months, as local doctors failed to diagnose her injury.
"It was extremely difficult not knowing what was wrong and how to fix it," she said.
Once they finally got their respective surgeries last year, Barney's and Williamson's time was almost entirely dedicated to getting back on the field.
They would wake up, go to therapy, go to class, go back to therapy, do special workouts at practice, go back to therapy again, sleep and repeat.
"Kat and McKenzie are workhorses, and they want to get back and they want to play," trainer Emily Kiefer said. "Motivation for them is not an issue."
Kiefer said the only thing holding the players back was time. Williamson's less-severe injury required three months to heal while Barney's demanded six months.
As they sat on the sidelines, Barney and Williamson were told by Burleigh to watch specific players. During the games, they would hear the coaches' comments about mistakes made by their healthy teammates.
"Me and Kat learned so much last year from watching, and I think it really transferred over to this year," Barney said.
After all the time spent on the sideline, keeping their weight off their weakened knees, Barney and Williamson have learned how to appreciate life on the field.
"I feel so fortunate to actually be actively part of this team, because I felt like so long I was just verbally contributing instead of physically having my presence out there," Williamson said. "It's a great experience. I love it. I love every minute out there."