Gators head for SEC Soccer tourney

Florida’s soccer team won one Southeastern Conference title last weekend. Now it may be time for another.

The first was the SEC’s regular-season championship; the second title possibility comes via the league’s tournament, and that quest begins Wednesday when the top-seeded Gators take on eighth-seed Kentucky at 6 p.m.

If Florida wins, it will face the Auburn-LSU winner at 8:30 Friday in the semifinals. The winner of that game advances to Sunday’s championship, set for 3:30 p.m.

In other matches Wednesday, seventh-seed Ole Miss takes on No. 2 seed Georgia at 1; and sixth seed South Carolina battles No. 3 Tennessee at 3:30. The losers go home; the winners advance with one off day to rest.

“I do like the every-other day format,” Florida coach Becky Burleigh said. “It used to be two games, then a day off. It’s such a grueling sport. That’s the one thing people don’t understand is the physical toll that it takes. If the UF football team were to play Friday Sunday, there would be a big uproar. People would say there’s no way they could play two games this week. Well, that’s what the rest of the world thinks about us playing two games in one week, and that happens every week of the season for us and going into the SEC tournament, there’s the potential to play three games in a five-day period.

“(Last) Sunday’s game against Vanderbilt was a makeup and you couldn’t have predicted that was going to happen, but it gives us less rest than everyone else. That’s something where we’ll have to manage our substitution patterns really well, if you want to continue in the tournament. It’s hard to do that when you’re one and out.”

Florida’s 3-0 victory over Vandy secured the Gators’ second consecutive SEC title. UF (13-4-2) started SEC play 0-2, but peeled off nine consecutive victories to surpass Tennessee and Georgia on the way to the regular-season title.

The Gators outscored their opponents 25-1 during their run, a surge that could be attributed to productive offense and stingy defense. Both feed off each other.

“Our defense is a team thing,” Burleigh said. “It’s not just our back line and our goal keeper. They certainly they can take a lot of credit for it. We limit the other team’s opportunities by our offense. (Vanderbilt) did have some opportunities Sunday and our goalkeepers came up big. I think that’s important.  If you’re going to win, the easiest way to do that is to not let the other team score.”

The Gators’ winning streak started with Kentucky, a good defensive squad that made the Gators grind out their win.

“Kentucky’s a team that we only beat 1-0 earlier this season and that was a pretty tough game,” Burleigh said. “That’s not an easy draw.  Hopefully, we win and then there would be games on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. But it all starts with Kentucky first.

“It’s been a long haul for our players. I think it was difficult for us to see the big picture when we lost those two opening games (to Georgia and Tennessee), but at the same time, we just tried to take it one game at a time and control our own destiny, which we couldn’t until last weekend.  But it worked out, which was pretty good.”

The soccer team was the first squad on the UF campus to win an outright SEC title this fall. Volleyball also won a share of yet another SEC East title when it swept Arkansas Sunday.

“We would love to be in a situation like volleyball where we could say we’d love to win 17 straight championships, but we’re not there yet,” Burleigh said. “Soccer ends first, and it’s a great way to get on the board if you’re talking about the all-sports trophy. We’re happy to contribute.”

Five Gators earned All-SEC honors Tuesday. Three — sophomores Ashlee Elliott and Lauren Hyde and senior Stacy Bishop — made first team. Two others –junior Ameera Abdullah and senior KeLeigh Hudson — were second-team selections.

Bishop, a midfielder from Land O’ Lakes, leads the Gators with 20 points and six assists. She also has seven goals, tied for first on the squad.