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Monday, April 22, 2024

Soccer team takes different mindset to SEC Tourney

Hospitality is overrated.

When Tennessee (8-8-3, 4-5-2 Southeastern Conference) faces No. 8 Florida (14-4-2, 8-1-2 SEC) in the opening round of the SEC Tournament tonight at 6 in Orange Beach, Ala., the Volunteers might find the Gators backline to be less inviting than the last time the two teams met.

When UF traveled to Tennessee on Oct. 16, the Gators blew an early 1-0 lead after defender Lauren Hyde had the ball stripped by Volunteers forward Chelsea Hatcher in the Gators' defensive third.

Hatcher easily scored, Tennessee put another goal on the scoreboard and Florida needed a goal in the last five minutes to escape with a tie.

"Tennessee kicked our butts last time," coach Becky Burleigh said.

When the Gators returned to Gainesville after the match, Burleigh changed the way the team practiced to emphasize defense.

"We're a high-risk team," Burleigh said. "We like to play offense. We play defense because we have to - that's just our philosophy. And so we were relying a little bit too much on our offense and not spending enough time coaching the defense."

The coaches put players through a one-on-one drill to help them focus on pressuring opponents when they are the first to mark an attacking player. The idea is for one player to step up and cut off the opponent's options.

"One-on-one defending is crucial because if you mess up, then that messes up the whole team," sophomore Sarah Chapman said.

The Gators also practice a half-field drill, where forwards and attacking midfielders approach UF defenders and try to score. Defensive midfielders usually play alongside the backline, but Burleigh sometimes tells them to play behind the attack to practice defending a counter attack.

If the defensive midfielders are tracking back, the backline focuses on containing the attack as much as possible until the midfielders can arrive to help.

During the drill, coaches will stop play when they see the need to instruct defenders on how to react based on the way the offense runs into the penalty box.

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By focusing on defense in practice, the Gators not only improved tactically, they also changed their mentality, Burleigh said. The coach wants every player, attacking players included, to be involved.

"If you have a player that gets past you, then you have a responsibility to get back and help track that player down, and not just say, 'Oh, it's not my problem anymore, I'll let her deal with it,'" Burleigh said.

The change in attitude has been obvious on the pitch. In UF's three games since the team changed its focus, the Gators have recorded three shutouts.

Even more telling, in games to determine the SEC regular season championship against No. 13 LSU and No. 15 South Carolina, Florida prevented its opponents from getting an open look at the goal.

Anytime a player had room to breathe, she quickly noticed a Gators jersey attached to her.

"In the back of our mind, when we lose the ball, we have to get it back," Chapman said.

Back to Tennessee's side of the field, but not back to Florida's welcoming ways.

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