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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Florida soccer seniors forge bond after four grueling seasons

Several challenges faced five Gators throughout their time in Gainesville

<p>Five seniors on the UF soccer team — Francesca Faraci, Kouri Peace, Cameron Hall, Syd Kennedy and Alivia Gonzalez (left to right) — end their collegiate careers having played for three different head coaches. <br/></p>

Five seniors on the UF soccer team — Francesca Faraci, Kouri Peace, Cameron Hall, Syd Kennedy and Alivia Gonzalez (left to right) — end their collegiate careers having played for three different head coaches.

Four seasons, three head coaches and one pandemic later, five seniors finished their soccer careers at Florida together. 

Midfielders Cameron Hall and Syd Kennedy, forwards Kouri Peace and Alivia Gonzalez and goalkeeper Francesca Faraci each come from different backgrounds, but have formed tight-knit bonds and learned to lean on each other through adversity. 

The seniors on the squad were recruited and began their careers under former Florida head coach Becky Burleigh, who retired in 2021 after 26 years at UF. The group described the experience as surreal to have a coach of her stature recruit them. 

Burleigh won 14 SEC regular season titles, 12 SEC Tournament championships and a national championship in her stint with the Gators soccer team. 

Hall’s recruitment started early, she said, as she committed to Florida when she was just 16 and in ninth grade. She was in disbelief but felt accomplished to have a coach like Burleigh see her potential as a person and player, she said. 

“I was just like, ‘No way,’” Hall said. “That’s not right.” 

Peace left her home state of Pennsylvania for UF. It was hard to attend a university so far from home, she said, but the team’s tight-knit relationships gave her a sense of family.

Faraci’s dream was to attend UF. However, she initially had doubts about whether her soccer skills would be enough to make it on the Gators team, she said. With enough ambition to fuel her hard work, she caught Burleigh’s attention, she said.

Once offered a spot on the team, Faraci accepted it immediately, she said, and felt accomplished about coming to her dream school and seeing her work recognized. 

The first season involved adjustments to a new environment and becoming comfortable with college soccer for the five women. 

Kennedy moved from Nova Scotia, Canada, to Gainesville, but she said she didn’t have time to feel homesick because of how much time her first year as a new team member took up, she said. 

Peace’s first year turned out to be one of her favorites despite it being nerve-wracking at times, she said.

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She remembered in one of her first-ever practices, she got bodychecked by former midfielder Sammie Betters. The incident made her coach laugh and let her know this was her “welcome to college soccer,” Peace said. 

“Freshman year was one for the books,” she said. “I will never forget it.” 

As the seniors began to get adjusted to Florida, the COVID-19 pandemic sent them home. The players didn’t know if they would get to play their sophomore season, but the difficulties extended beyond the field. 

Hall’s father fell sick in March 2020. The first person she called when her family took her dad to the hospital, she said, was Burleigh. The support from her team and coaches kept her family strong through the tough time as her father began to recover from his sickness. 

In the middle of the seniors’ second season, Burleigh announced she would retire at the end of the year. While the players were shocked, they wanted to make the most of every moment of their coach’s last ride. 

Gonzalez was thankful for Burleigh’s coaching in her first two seasons and thought her coaching style helped her adjust to college and a new team, she said.

“[Burleigh] really helped pave the way and grow me as a person before a player,” Gonzalez said. 

Faraci took Burleigh’s last season to learn, she said. She also wanted tocontinue theculture of putting the person before the player.

“I didn’t want anyone to not remember what Gator soccer is about,” Faraci said.

Peace described her sophomore year as bittersweet. There was anxiety knowing there would be a new coaching staff, but Peace felt lucky to be a part of Burleigh’s final season and grateful for the memories she made with her.

It was heartbreaking, Hall said, but she was happy to see her old coach move on to a new chapter in her life after everything she had done for the Florida program. 

Through an unprecedented time of changes, Burleigh admired the resilience her players showed, the coach said. 

The seniors were thrown into the unknown time and time again but handled it well and maintained positivity, Burleigh said. The seniors faced many unanticipated challenges since joining the Gators, but Burleigh gave them credit for their perseverance.

“This group has done a terrific job of looking at the big picture and recognizing that they're laying the foundation for something really special,” Burleigh said.

The team didn’t have long to get to know the new coaching staff once they were brought in during the seniors’ third season at UF. Although the senior players’ third year contained challenges and hardships, it helped bring them together. 

Kennedy learned to lean on her teammates and found comfort in knowing she was not alone in the struggles she faced in a junior season.

“Me and my class went through so much together that it'll really build a bond for life,” Kennedy said.

Faraci pushed through the adversities former Florida head coach Tony Amato brought to be there for her teammates, she said. Faraci didn’t want her teammates shying away from standing up against the abuse dealt with under Amato.

Amato was cited for innapropiate comments about the player’s eating habits in his lone season as Florida’s coach, according to a WUFT article

While results didn’t go the Gators’ way in the 2022 season, the seniors spent their final year recapturing their joy for the game and making the most of every minute.

It felt crazy to reach the end of her soccer career after playing the sport since she was 4 years old, Gonzalez said. She worked her whole life to get to this point where she’ll soon receive a degree from UF, leaving her impact on others along the way. 

Hall’s time with the Gators has been much bigger than soccer, she said. These past four years have helped her to learn to never give up on herself, she said, and to stand up for what she believes in. 

Kennedy was grateful for the past four years and the people who were a part of it, she said. As she moved into a leadership role on the team, Kennedy said it was vital for her to make sure her team felt valued, and she wanted to be someone who made others feel heard.

Faraci made it a note, she said, to cherish her final moments with everyone on the team. It will be sad for her to leave the teammates who shared the same triumphs and tribulations.

It will take some adjustments for Peace to begin life without soccer, she said. A new chapter is exciting, but she said she’ll be sad not to see her best friends every day. 

“I’m just so fortunate to have these girls,” Peace said. “I love them so much.”

Contact Jackson Reyes at Follow him on Twitter @JacksnReyes.

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Jackson Reyes

Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.

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