The Florida Gators soccer team is ready to put the heartbreak of a painful penalty shootout loss to Duke in the second round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament behind them, kicking off their 2011 campaign tonight against the Miami Hurricanes at 7 p.m. in Coral Gables.
Florida enters the season ranked ninth nationally. While the five-time defending SEC champions have lofty goals for the season, they’re entering this season with a different mindset.
“Our new thing is we’re going to try to focus on one day at a time, one thing at a time,” senior defender Jazmyne Avant said. “That’s kind of our theme for this year. I think that new focus is going to help us a lot.”
The Gators enter the season having to replace a few key players like goalkeeper Katie Fraine and defenders Nicky Kit and Ashlee Elliott.
However, Florida has a good mix of returning talent and new energy in the freshman class. Getting those younger players on the same page as the veteran ones will be key for the Gators early in the season.
“The first thing, we’re looking at opening up on the road against Miami,” head coach Becky Burleigh said. “The last time we were there, they had their record crowd. It’s going to be a raucous environment, I’m sure. I think we have enough older players that can talk to the younger players about what that’s like, not being at home and having the home field advantage.”
Burleigh doesn’t expect her team to be 100 percent ready, and that’s okay, she said. She just wants to see her squad develop early in the season.
Florida scrimmaged last week to prepare for the Miami game, and Burleigh said she was fairly pleased with what she saw.
Florida’s players also felt confident about the scrimmage. Freshman Annie Speese scored the first goal of the scrimmage, and she said it was nice to finally get out there and compete at a college level in a live situation.
“We’re always going to have something to improve and work on, but I think for a first scrimmage it was good,” Speese said. “We moved the ball well, and I think that’s what we’re focused on, playing quick one- and two-touch passes and just playing the game. I think it’s going to look good.”
Burleigh also noted her team has focused on playing more possession-oriented soccer than in the past, something she feels her team can benefit from given Florida’s skill in the midfield.
The Gators return the SEC’s leading goal-scorer from 2010 in junior McKenzie Barney; senior Tahnai Annis, who finished one goal behind Barney a year ago; junior Erika Tymrak, who was a 2010 All-SEC selection; and sophomore Taylor Travis, who was named the SEC’s Freshman of the Year in 2010.
“We have a ton of threats who are just stepping up to the plate,” Barney said. “Everybody’s going to be a threat in the offense, so I think it’s going to be a lot better this year.”
While Florida has remarkable talent through the midfield and in the attack, the back line for the Gators is somewhat of a question mark.
Replacing Fraine in the net won’t be easy, though senior goalkeeper Brooke Chancey and freshman Taylor Burke have done their best to step up in the offseason.
Chancey is expected to earn the start between the pipes, though Burleigh hasn’t publicly announced a decision yet.
Chancey played in four games for Florida in 2010, recording her one start in a shutout win over No. 20 South Carolina in the SEC Tournament.
“Obviously we lose a lot of experience at that position,” Burleigh said. “Neither Brooke nor Taylor have had a lot of experience. Taylor is a freshman and Brooke has only started a couple games in her career. I have confidence in them. Will they be the level Katie was at the end of her career Friday? Probably not, but that’s not the expectation.”
Having watched Fraine play for a few years, Chancey has seen the ins and outs of the college game.
Volunteer coach Robert E. Liessem, Jr., has worked with Chancey on the bench throughout her career, coming up with things for her to keep track of to keep her focused on the goalkeeper position and what she could learn to improve on.
Burleigh thinks that’s the real advantage her senior goalkeeper has over the more athletic and rangier freshman.
“[Chancey] has become a student of the game over the past three years,” Burleigh said. “I think that has given her an awful lot of experience in terms of what to look for. The players have a comfort level with her in terms of she’s going to go after every ball hard.”
Whoever starts in goal for Florida will have the luxury of playing behind one of the nation’s best defenders in Kathryn Williamson, a 2010 All-American.
Williamson will anchor Florida’s back line, and Burleigh said the redshirt junior has become an even better player than she expected when she recruited her.
“I think we have some good players in our back line, obviously the anchor of that is Kat,” the head coach said. “She’s got tons of experience, she’s proven herself as one of the best players in the country. She’s going to play a big role in keeping that back line together.”
Florida will put that line to the test tonight against a Miami team that enters the year unranked.
The schools will meet for the sixth time in school history, with the Gators holding a 4-1 series edge, including a 2-0 record in Coral Gables.
Last year’s match ended in a thrilling 2-1 overtime win for Florida when Travis notched the game-winner with her first collegiate goal in the 107th minute in the second overtime.
Burleigh expects her team will face a tough challenge again tonight against a Miami side with new energy behind first-year head coach Tom Anagnost.
Florida’s just ready to kick the season off after working against each other for so long in the offseason.
“I think we’re just really excited to finally get to play against someone else than ourselves,” Avant said. “It’s going to be exciting to see if what we do works on other teams. No matter where it is or who it is, we’re excited to play our first game.”