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Sunday, June 04, 2023

Gators claim SEC title after Josh Goodger’s clutch performance

Gators recover from doubles point loss to secure four singles victories over Kentucky

The Gators claimed the SEC title Sunday. Photo from UF-Auburn match Feb. 21.
The Gators claimed the SEC title Sunday. Photo from UF-Auburn match Feb. 21.

With an SEC regular season championship on the line, Florida senior Josh Goodger had the weight of the world on his shoulders in his third set battle with Yasha Zemel.

After a 5-3 pause, Goodger lined up a final serve with hopes to keep his perfect record alive. Goodger’s serve blazed over the net and nicked the inner corner. But the ball didn’t make the trip back. 

Then, the Gators realized they cinched the dual — and became SEC regular season champions.

The umpire called the match from the high rise chair, and the Florida sideline rushed to congratulate Goodger and hype up their perfect record against SEC opponents. Junior Sam Riffice didn’t finish his three set fight with a win. But it didn’t matter. He tapped his opponent’s racket and rushed to hold the SEC trophy.

As the cameras flashed upon the team, head coach Bryan Shelton was doused with cool blue Gatorade.

But Easter Sunday didn’t begin with as many bright smiles. The No. 1 Gators fought back from a one-point deficit when Kentucky waltzed out of Linder Stadium with two doubles upsets. Goodger and Duarte Vale’s 7-6 (9-7) doubles loss sealed the deal for the No. 22 Wildcats. It also marked the first time the Gators gave up a doubles point in 10 matches.

On the singles center court, Kentucky sophomore Liam Draxl barked himself back into gear when he began an uphill battle against Vale. 

“Come on, man. Dig! Win!”

For each score, Draxl repeated his war cry to eventually drag himself back into a deuce. But the value of his efforts came up short when Vale kept his opponent at a safe distance through the rest of the fight.

Each bounce and awkward shot landed in Vale’s favor to build the frustrations of Kentucky’s top-ranked player. When the score seemed to be inches away from a deadlock, Vale was on the ball with a new trick up his sleeve. The Portuguese native powered down Draxl in two sets with a 6-2, 6-2 final.

Sophomore Blaise Bicknell continued his rampage and stomped over Kentucky’s No. 97 Joshua Lapadat in two sets. Blaise sat firm in the driver’s seat the entire match and beat down his opponent to complete a perfect regular season.

With the SEC regular season title in its pocket, Florida will enjoy an extended break before the regular season finale in Columbia, South Carolina, when they challenge the unranked Gamecocks April 9. 

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