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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Questions still loom as Gators head into NCAA Soccer Tourney

Two weeks ago, these questions weren’t lingering.

On Oct. 30, Florida downed No. 8 South Carolina 3-0, marking its sixth win in seven games and giving the Gators the Southeastern Conference regular season championship.

Florida was expected to carry that momentum to the SEC Tournament last week, but things did not work out that way. UF played sluggish, needing two overtimes to squeak past bottom-seed Tennessee before losing a rematch against South Carolina 1-0.

All of a sudden, the verdict on No. 9 Florida (15-5-2) is unclear.

After winning the regular season championship, coach Becky Burleigh said the Gators were playing at the highest level they had all season, yet the team played considerably worse in the games following that statement.

Now, as UF prepares for the first round of the NCAA Tournament, where they will meet Illinois State (12-6-1) tonight at 5 in Columbus, Ohio, the Gators insist they are back to where they were two weeks ago.

UF had to come from behind in the standings to win the regular season conference championship, forcing the Gators to play with hunger, something they lacked last week.

“We just needed more motivation to win because we already won the SEC,” forward McKenzie Barney said. “We were like, ‘OK, we can get a great bid if we win the SEC Tournament.’ Maybe that wasn’t enough to spark us.”

Barney said the team was in a lull after playing several intense conference games at the end of the regular season. With a bid in the NCAA Tournament essentially wrapped-up, the SEC Tournament was nothing more than a buffer between the regular season and the most important matches of the year.

“The point of the regular season is to amass enough good wins and good results to get to the NCAA Tournament,” Burleigh said.

Players on the team said there was a greater sense of urgency this week in practice with an end-of-the-year tournament looming.

 “One little slip-up is the end of our season,” senior Angela Napolitano said.

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Napolitano is one of six seniors who could step on the pitch for the last time Friday, although a loss against Illinois State does not seem likely as the Redbirds play in the much weaker Missouri Valley Conference.

“Every single game in the SEC this year was a fight for the title, down to the last game,” Barney said. “We have that up on our opponents.”

Most players on the team mentioned the fear of ending their season as inspiration to stay focused on the upcoming game, while the possibility of playing deep into the playoffs was hardly brought up.

The seniors have reached the round of sixteen three straight years. They have also lost in the round of sixteen three straight years.

But, like with every other season for those fourth-year players, the Gators begin the tournament with a strong enough resume to play beyond that round. And therein lies UF’s motivation.

“You can win a national championship,” sophomore Lindsay Thompson. “You have the opportunity to do something great, and if you don’t play your best you’re going to go home and be left with nothing.”

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