After nearly three months of regular-season play, 90 minutes of regulation, 20 minutes of overtime, the fate of a single season came down to this: One goal keeper. One shooter. Winner take all.
So it was for Florida goalie Meghan Berlingo, who found herself face to face with her opponent Sunday, and the freshman came up huge for the Gators, saving one penalty kick and preventing two others to help UF defeat Central Florida on a crisp autumn afternoon at Pressly Stadium.
Officially, the game is a draw, but what matters is the Gators advance to the Sweet 16 where they will face Southern Cal, a 1-0 winner over Missouri, this weekend. Florida dominated yesterday’s match, outshooting the Knights 24-5, but came dangerously close to losing to the Orlandoans, who took control by stopping the first penalty kick, but lost when they missed one late.
“PKs, for me, are exciting,” Berlingo said. “I kind of thrive on them. For a goalkeeper, if you don’t save one, it’s not as if you’re expected to save one. When you do come up with a save, it’s awesome. That’s what got me through after the first PK. I knew I had to something because then my team wouldn’t have been successful. After that point, I said to myself that I mentally had to do something. That’s how I got through it.”
The game was tied 0-0 after two 10-minute overtime periods, a stalemate that led to a PK shootout. The format was best-of-five PKs followed by a sudden-death PK shootout until someone cracks. In the end, UCF blinked. Florida did not.
“Our team did everything we asked,” Central Florida coach Amanda Cromwell said. “I thought we were unlucky in PKs; I thought they were unlucky in the game. Sometimes, that’s how it works.”
With the game tied at 3-all, UF’s Ameera Abdullah placed her shot in the upper right shelf. This brought up UCF’s Hanna Wilde, whose shot nicked the top right post, sending the Gators into a wild postgame scrum.
“This may sound cocky, but I felt like we were going to win, whether it was in regulation or penalty kicks,” Florida coach Becky Burleigh said. “Even after we had our first penalty kick saved, I still felt confident.”
Not to mention fortunate. Had Wilde not missed, the outcome might have been different.
“Soccer is not a very just game sometimes,” Burleigh said. “It’s probably the only sport where you can really, really dominate an opponent and not have it turn out on the scoreboard in your favor. Justice was served with the PKs. With PKs, honestly you can flip a coin. I’ve been on both sides of it. It’s a crappy way to lose. Honestly, it’s not a great way to win, either. I think our experience paid off.”
Florida (17-4-3) took the first penalty kick, and UCF seized control when keeper Jennifer Manis smothered Stacy Bishop’s low-driving shot just inside the post. UCF scored; Florida scored and the Knights’ Amanda Martorana hit the cross bar.
Up stepped Florida’s Ashley Harris. Manis responded with a diving save. Berlingo countered with a save, lunging to the right to deflect the game-changing shot.
“You just have to go with your gut feeling and dive really hard, and that’s what I did,” Berlingo said.
That stop was all Florida needed. The Gators didn’t miss again. Shelley Lyle, Daniela Sanchez and Abdullah scored easily.
Florida dominated the first 90 minutes, amassing at 10-1 shot advantage midway in the first half. In fact, UCF (15-4-4) went 35 minutes without mustering a single shot.
“First of all, you have to credit UCF for keeping the ball out of the back of the net,” Burleigh said. “Their keeper made a couple nice saves. We hit a couple over the top. When you can keep the ball out of the net for 110 minutes, that’s a credit to their defense.”
UCF’s defense was good; Berlingo’s was better.
“I guessed four out of five right,” Berlingo said. “When you see the ball bounce off the post, it’s awesome.”
NOTES: After the first half the Gators were without senior forward KeLeigh Hudson, who sustained a knee injury. Her status for the rest of postseason is questionable. She is scheduled to have an MRI done early this week.