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Friday, April 12, 2024

Gators season ends in NCAA second round

One miscue made for an abrupt end.

Playing a sport where scores are invaluable, a steal by midfielder Rachael Axon led to an Oregon State golden goal, ending the game and No. 9 Florida’s season in the second round of the NCAA Tournament 1-0 Sunday.

“We’re all going to be back, and we’re going to keep working just as hard,” said sophomore Lindsay Thompson, UF’s leading scorer this season.

But that news is no consolation for Florida’s five seniors, who will never don a Gators uniform again. While the team was dominated by youth with 23 underclassmen, the seniors averaged 62 minutes of action per game.

The class, led by three-time All-SEC First-Team selection and Southeastern Conference Defender of the Year Lauren Hyde, will leave Gainesville with four SEC Championship rings.

But it could not provide the answer Sunday.

After Axon stole the ball in Florida’s defensive third, she sent a through pass to sophomore Melinda Ingalls inside the box. Ingalls then fired a shot from 16 yards out, beating Gators goalkeeper Katie Fraine to her right in the 99th minute.

“I honestly take responsibility for that goal because that’s something I should have saved,” Fraine said. “…My job is those shots, and I wasn’t set.”

After Ingalls scored the game-winner, Fraine sat in front of the goal, throwing her gloves on the ground in disgust while the rest of the team stood in shock.

After struggling early in the year, coach Becky Burleigh put more of an emphasis on team defense, and the backline responded by stringing off six shutouts in seven games leading up to Sunday.

The only goal Florida surrendered during that stretch was in a 1-0 loss to South Carolina on Nov. 6, and that score came on a penalty kick.

The turnover aside, UF’s defense played well against Oregon State, and Burleigh said the bigger problem was the Gators attack, as Florida failed to put a shot on goal all game.

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The Beavers played with five midfielders and pressured the Gators each time a UF player touched the ball, exploiting Florida’s youth.

After senior forward Ashlee Elliott suffered a torn ACL in her left knee in just the third game of the season, Burleigh looked to the team’s underclassmen to provide offense and UF’s top-five scorers were freshmen and sophomores.

Unfortunately for the Gators, the inexperienced offensive weapons disappeared in the most important game of the season. The young players, who had surprised conference rivals all year by playing with poise, picked the most agonizing time to experience growing pains.

“Being such a youth-oriented team right now, I think (the loss) will be really good for us,” Fraine said.

Florida’s underclassmen actually played better as the year progressed and the games became more important.

The last 15 goals of the season were from freshmen and sophomores. With Elliott set to return next season after receiving a medical redshirt, the Gators attack should be more dangerous next year.

That won’t ease the end of this season.

“I would have given anything to keep playing with my seniors,” Thompson said.

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