Nicole Vernis

Redshirt freshman midfielder Nicole Vernis fights for a ball at Florida’s home opener against Georgia this season. Vernis scored her first collegiate goal versus South Carolina Sunday afternoon.

An already difficult matchup at No. 11 South Carolina was even tougher for Florida with the absence of coach Becky Burleigh, who stayed back in Gainesville due to COVID-19 contact tracing. A shorthanded Gators team proved no match for the Gamecocks, who came away with a comfortable 4-2 victory at Stone Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina, on Sunday.

UF was without seven players for undisclosed reasons: Carina Baltrip-Reyes, Georgia Eaton-Collins, Kouri Peace, Kit Loferski, Deanne Rose, Ashlyn Kane and Ava Kuyken. Although Peace, Loferski and Rose have recently missed time with injuries, the exact cause of their absences was not revealed.

With Burleigh in quarantine, Alan Kirkup and Vic Campbell took over the coaching duties for Florida. The associate head coaches, along with help from Burleigh through phone calls, were responsible for setting the starting lineup.

Their decision to start redshirt freshman Nicole Vernis paid off in the 10th minute, as the midfielder found the back of the net on a low cross from forward Cassidy Lindley to level the game at 1-1.

The Gamecocks had opened the scoring just four minutes prior to Vernis’ first collegiate goal off a set piece that was headed home by defender Sutton Jones.

South Carolina’s goal in the early stages foreshadowed Florida’s fate in what turned out to be a disappointing performance from the Gators defense.

The Gamecocks took advantage of UF’s back line, which was without two of its mainstays in Baltrip-Reyes and Eaton-Collins, scoring each of their four goals from corner kicks.

“(We) clearly had an issue defending corners and USC exposed that,” Burleigh said in a release after the defeat. “We will work on that going forward. (I) felt good about our ability in the run of play, but we aren’t here for moral victories.”

Gators defender Tori Grambo also found the back of the net for the first time in her college career with 22 seconds remaining in Sunday’s contest. 

The UF freshman dribbled the ball near the edge of the box and unleashed a left-footed shot from 19 yards out to cut South Carolina’s lead in half. Her late goal was just a consolation, however, as the Gators dropped their third-consecutive game.

The Gamecocks, meanwhile, celebrated coach Shelley Smith’s 300th-career win. She is now the 27th coach in NCAA Division I women’s soccer history to reach that milestone.

Next up for Florida is a meeting with Tennessee on Friday night. Burleigh’s availability for next week’s game, along with that of the seven players who failed to make the trip to South Carolina, is still unknown.

Contact Bryan Matamoros at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @bryan_2712.

Bryan Matamoros is a sports writer for The Alligator. He has previously covered UF men's and women's golf, women's lacrosse and women's soccer. Now, he is on the Florida baseball and women's basketball beats.