The Florida soccer team gained attention back in May when it unveiled its roster for the 2016 regular season.
The squad featured 39 players, making it the largest group ever in the sport’s 22-year history at UF.
That tremendous depth ended up serving as a rallying cry for the Gators all fall, providing extra bodies both at practice and in games while also creating a support system that coach Becky Burleigh coined “39 Strong.”
And with No. 9 Florida (16-4-1) now in the heat of playoff action, that mantra is proving to be more influential than ever before.
Due to NCAA regulations, a team can only dress 22 active players per postseason match, meaning UF had to sit out 17 in its contest against Florida Gulf Coast on Friday night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The inactive members of the team sat in the first row of the stands, and while they weren’t able to participate, they still made a big impact, yelling, shouting and cheering their teammates on to a 3-0 shutout over FGCU at Donald R. Dizney Stadium.
“It was like they were on the bench because they were so loud and right there,” Burleigh said. “When we have 39 people all pulling for one another, no one else has that. No one else in this tournament has that. I think for us it’s a huge factor in our success.”
Burleigh has been preaching a team-first attitude since the season began nearly three months ago, and she said Monday that her players have bought into the motto since winning the SEC Championship on Nov. 6 against Arkansas.
“That’s sort of really come to life I think particularly in this postseason,” she said. “It started at the SEC Tournament in full effect when we had everybody there, and we saw what an impact it had to have so many people pulling for each other, and we carried that on into Friday against Florida Gulf Coast.”
Now, the Gators’ reserves will look to help boost their team to a win over unranked Wisconsin on Friday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The match begins at 7 p.m. at Donald R. Dizney Stadium.
The Badgers (9-4-8) advanced to this stage of the bracket after defeating Marquette 1-0 in the competition’s first round.
Burleigh said she doesn’t know much about Wisconsin, but she was quick to give credit to coach Paula Wilkins and the rest of her staff.
“She has coached on the biggest stage at the highest levels and been very successful, so we know we’ll have our hands full for sure,” she said.
A story posted to FloridaGators.com contributed to this report.
UF soccer coach Becky Burleigh talks with her team following Florida's 5-2 win against Iowa State on Aug. 19, 2016, at James G. Pressly Stadium.