Florida advances in NCAA Tournament

The second-seeded Florida Gators soccer team posted an impressive 3-0 decision on the Atlantic Sun Conference champions Florida Gulf Coast University in the 2011 NCAA Championship opening round Saturday night at James G. Pressly Stadium.

History had been made for Florida Gulf Coast, as this is the first year the team has made it to the NCAA Championship.

Florida has come a long way to get to the NCAA Tournament this year, and the Gators hope to step up their game after their loss to Auburn in the SEC Tournament finals.

“What is important for us is to start off this post season doing some of the things we really emphasized,” Florida coach Becky Burleigh said. “Bringing a really strong defensive presence, executing when we can execute offensively.”

The match began with Florida controlling possession, but FGCU limiting passing lanes for the Gators.

Good looks came for both teams, first for FGCU, when an open Florida defense allowed the Eagles’ offense to build up to the box, finally being blocked by Florida defender Kathryn Williamson.

Florida took control of the ball and held their own in the Eagles’ half, taking their chances with a few shot attempts.

Florida’s persistence to move forward paid off in the 16th minute, when Florida midfielder Erika Tymrak sent the ball up to the box and found midfielder Tahnai Annis, who headed it into FGCU’s goal from five yards in front of the box, opening a 1-0 lead.

“I was trying to get into the best possible position to get a touch on the ball,” Annis said. “I was obviously in the box, trying to separate myself from a defender so that Erika could find me.”

Tymrak’s pregame comment that the game would consist of “scrappy” soccer held true after the Gators scored, when the clock stopped in the 19th minute, as FGCU senior midfielder Olivia Elias was hit at the back, causing her to leave the field.

Florida gained a corner kick in the beginning of the second half, and Gators midfielder Annie Speese crossed the ball right in front of goal for midfielder Holly King. King attempted to get to the ball but ran right past it, missing a shot that could have found the back of the net.

FGCU struggled to create dangerous plays against the Gators, as Florida controlled possession for the majority of the game and taking chances with 12 shots to goal as opposed to three for the Eagles.

“The best part of tonight’s game was that we really didn’t have any major threats offensively, so our team’s defense wasn’t giving them any clean looks,” said Burleigh.

At halftime, Florida looked to keep up the pressure against FGCU in the second half with a 1-0 lead.

“Vic (Campbell, associate head coach) talked at halftime about bringing a physical presence not just defensively, but offensively.”

Florida brought the physical pressure in the second half, and in the 58th minute King was issued a yellow card for aggressively knocking down FGCU forward Gina Petracco.

Despite the aggressive nature of the game, FGCU held its own as the Gators pressured forward, deflecting their shots and evening up play.

The Gators attempted to maneuver passes on the flanks as FGCU looked to pack its box. Florida’s Speese and forward Taylor Travis both attempted impressive shots from the left of the box, but FGCU keeper Stephanie Powers saved the Eagles from conceding.

Powers was beaten shortly after when Speese sent a ball to Annis 10 yards in front of goal, where she headed it past Powers. Annis’ eighth multi-goal game gave Florida a 2-0 lead.

“Vic always tells me to put it at the top of the six and just try to drive it in there, and Tahnai did a great job getting on the end of it,” Speese said.

FGCU struggled to gain its edge back, forging ahead anxiously and gaining its first yellow card in the process on a foul on Tymrak.

“It was hard, they have a strong back four,” Petracco said. “We were trying to sit back a little bit, let them come to us and pressure them accordingly, but it was definitely a harder challenge this game.”

Florida challenged FGCU 10 yards in front of its box again later in the second half when Speese sent another ball to Annis. Annis one-touched the ball to forward Lindsay Thompson, who headed it in at the 80th minute, extending the lead to a decisive 3-0.

Thompson attempted one last shot in the 84th minute but sent it too high, flying over goal.

“It wasn’t just the back four that was being aggressive, I think it was everybody,” Thompson said. “Being aggressive doesn’t mean just slide-tackling for the heck of it, I think people were smart with it, and we were screening properly, everybody was backing each other up and if someone made a mistake another person was behind them and I think that really contributed to our success.”

Burleigh commented that she liked the relentlessness of her team to push for a fourth goal, even with a 3-0 lead.

FGCU attempted to redeem itself with only two minutes left as FGCU forward Jess Swartzentruber fired a shot on frame, but it was picked up by Florida keeper Taylor Burke.

The 90 minutes ended with a 3-0 Florida victory.

“Two of the three goals were set pieces, which is something we have worked on defensively and offensively,” said Burleigh. “Ultimately going on to the next round was our goal, and we accomplished that.”

Florida advances to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, facing UCF at James G. Pressly Stadium on Nov. 18.

Gator Country reporter Michelle Provenzano can be reached at michellemprovenzano@gmail.com. You can also follow her on Twitter, @mmprovenzano.