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Senior defender fulfilling a role on offense for the Gators

<p>UF defender Christen Westphal dribbles the ball during Florida's 3-2 win against Florida State on Aug. 30, 2015, at James G. Pressly stadium.</p>

UF defender Christen Westphal dribbles the ball during Florida's 3-2 win against Florida State on Aug. 30, 2015, at James G. Pressly stadium.

The Southeastern Conference is more of a grind than a test, and the No. 12 Florida soccer team has shown it has been able to fill voids that needed to be addressed with the departure of several key players from last season.

Junior forward Brooke Sharp, who has scored seven goals this year, seems to be taking on the role that Havana Solaun assumed last season as the second-in-command on offense.

And freshman midfielder Sarah Troccoli has emerged as one of the best young players in the conference, having already notched four goals and two assists on the season.

But one player who has really stood out for the Gators this season is senior defender Christen Westphal.

Westphal, who was named an All-American in 2013, has been one of the Gators’ most valuable players this year.

While it seems odd to say that she’s breaking out this season — she has been named to two consecutive all-conference first teams — Westphal has played through the 2015 season with a skill that she had yet to showcase on the collegiate stage until now: assisting on goals.

Having gone her first three seasons at UF with just four assists, the senior defender has accumulated seven assists so far this season.

Westphal leads the team in the category, and is in a 10th-place tie in assists in the country.

Part of Westphal’s offensive surge this season can be attributed to a new type of role she has been asked to play on the team.

"One of the things we asked her to do was own her services," coach Becky Burleigh said on Monday.

That she has.

On top of being the team’s top distributor, Westphal has notched three of her seven assists off of corner kicks.

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Last season, Florida didn’t have any one or two players assigned to take corner kicks, but now that job belongs to Westphal on the left side and senior Lauren Smith on the right.

Burleigh understands the importance of having a player that can distribute set pieces with the ability that Westphal has shown thus far.

"We always feel that the ability to score on set pieces is about 70 percent service," Burleigh said.

Westphal’s effectiveness on corner kicks is just a small part of what she’s been able to provide for Florida on the offensive end of the field.

From one corner flag to the other, Westphal is almost always in control of the entire left wing when she is on the field.

"She has a big impact offensively and defensively for us," Troccoli said.

"Taking the ball up and taking on so many people and get a cross off."

None of this should take any credit away from how much of a presence she is for the Florida back line.

As quickly as she speeds up the side of the field to send in a well-placed cross into the box, Westphal sprints back to her natural position to join fellow senior defender Claire Falknor in preventing goals.

"Christen has always been a really outstanding player," Falknor said.

"She’s able to bring an offensive presence when we need it the most."

 Follow Kyle Brutman on Twitter @KBrut13

UF defender Christen Westphal dribbles the ball during Florida's 3-2 win against Florida State on Aug. 30, 2015, at James G. Pressly stadium.

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