Julia Lester has been a mainstay in Florida’s defense over the past four years. Her fearlessness and aggressiveness have made the senior indispensable to the team’s back line.
But it was Lester’s offensive talent that was on display against No. 8 South Carolina on Senior Day. The 5-foot-4 defender, who hadn’t registered a point since her sophomore season, provided forward Deanne Rose an assist in the 69th minute to help secure a 1-1 draw for the No. 20 Gators on Sunday afternoon.
“Honestly, it was surreal to have everyone run up to me. I wasn’t expecting it because usually we always run to the person that scored,” Lester said. “For it to be Senior Day, and to get that, it felt like something I really can’t explain.”
Florida (10-6-1, 6-2-1 SEC) came close to scoring in the second minute, as forwards Madison Alexander and Kouri Peace weaved their way around South Carolina’s (12-1-3, 6-0-3 SEC) defense. Alexander placed a through ball for Peace, who was met by Gamecocks goalie Mikayla Krzeczowski inside the 18-yard box. Both Peace and Krzeczowski collided with one another, causing the ball to ricochet and slowly roll toward the net before a South Carolina defender cleared the danger.
The bang-bang play, however, came at a cost for the Gamecocks.
Krzeczowski stayed on the ground for several minutes after the clash with Peace, as the two-time All-SEC First Team goalie writhed in pain with trainers hovering around her. She remained in the game but was hindered by a limp.
Peace and Krzeczowski met again in the 46th minute. This time, Krzeczowski made an acrobatic save on Peace’s shot, tapping the ball over the crossbar with her right hand to keep the contest at a stalemate.
The Gators finally got the best of South Carolina’s all-time leader in shutouts with a strike from Rose in the 69th minute for her fifth goal of the season and first since Sept. 26, when UF defeated Missouri 3-2.
Florida maintained the lead for just 14 minutes, until the Gamecocks responded with a goal from forward Riley Tanner in the 83rd minute that grazed the fingertips of Gators goalie Susi Espinoza.
With the game tied at the end of regulation, the conference battle went into extra time.
UF and South Carolina had two 10-minute halves to score the game-winning goal, but Espinoza and Krzeczowski made one and three saves, respectively, to preserve the draw for their teams.
Coach Becky Burleigh mentioned that her team was not content with the tie despite salvaging a point against one of the best teams in the nation.
“Eventually we have to move on, but I think it is a good thing,” she said. “The mentality that our team had to just go after it...and not be satisfied with the tie, I think that’s something that we’ll carry with us as we go through the rest of the season.”
Follow Bryan Matamoros on Twitter @bryan_2712. Contact him at [email protected]