Gators lose Elliott in victory over USF

Florda’s third soccer victory of the season Sunday came at a cost – senior Ashlee Elliott left the game with a left knee sprain in the Gators’ 2-1 victory over South Florida at James G. Pressly Stadium.

The Gators used goals from senior Lauren Hyde and sophomore Tahnai Annis to move to 3-0 overall but Elliott’s loss in the 16th minute was a major concern. Elliott, a two-time All-SEC selection, is considered the heart of Florida’s offensive attack. She will be examined later this week.

In the 4-2-3-1 formation that the Gators use, Elliott is the only true forward. She is responsible for facilitating the offense – both for herself and for her teammates. There was a sign that the injury wasn’t too serious as Elliott was seen walking later on.

Another sluggish start by the Gators led to a 1-0 Bulls lead at halftime. The Bulls’ goal, which came in the 44th minute from USF’s Noelle Pineiro, resulted from a defensive breakdown.

Senior All-American Lauren Hyde felt responsible. So not five minutes into the second half, Hyde tied the game herself on a free kick from about 25 yards out. It was her first collegiate goal and the fifth goal by five different Gators this season.

“I was pretty mad about what happened in the first half,” Hyde said after the game. “I felt kind of like (the USF goal) was my fault. I didn’t clear it well and I went in the locker room saying ‘I’m going to score six goals if I have to – we’re not losing this game.’”

Before the shot, Hyde got some advice from UF assistant coach Alan Kirkup. “Kick it hard,” he said. She kicked it so hard, it hit the right upright and banged in.

“I was really happy,” Hyde said. “I was actually more excited that I didn’t let the team down. I kind of gained back the goal that was scored in the first half. But I was excited too – your first goal is always fun.”

The free kicks have been a focus for Florida this season. After Friday night’s game against Florida International, several players mentioned the amount of practice time spent on set pieces (free kicks).

Florida coach Becky Burleigh was asked if she was concerned at her team’s lack of “natural” goals.

“No, we’re not concerned. We practice set pieces,” Burleigh said. “They’re a big part of soccer.”

Hyde took another shot on goal in the 77th minute, but it was blocked by a USF defender. But on the rebound, teammate Tahnai Annis scored from eight yards out.

“There was not very much time at all when it was happening,” Annis said. “It was just a reaction. I had to be ready to get anything on it I could. It was my first goal of the season so it was very exciting.”

The Gators goals are impressive, considering the opposition. South Florida senior goalkeeper Mallori Lofton-Malachi trained with the U.S. National Team in the spring. Last season, she allowed less than one goal per game.

Burleigh has been upset with the Gators’ slow starts – they are now scoreless through three matches. But the Gators picked up the pace against USF. Before leaving the game, Elliott took an 8-yard shot on goal in the third minute and then set up teammate Jessica Eicken along the left side for a fifth-minute shot.

“For the first 20-25 minutes, I thought we played really well,” Burleigh said. “I liked what we were doing and we created a lot of opportunities but unfortunately we didn’t finish.”

Before the second half started, Burleigh spoke to her team.

“We just told them to relax,” Burleigh said. “We need to focus on the process, not the outcome. In the process, we were doing what we needed to do and the outcome will follow.”

Now, as the Gators prepare to hit the road to the Midwest, Burleigh is hoping that her team will put together a complete game. The Gators will need to bring their best game, especially against No. 9 UCLA Sunday in Champaign, Ill.

“I’m not sure that we’ve put together two full halfs,” Burleigh said. “We’ve got a lot to work on but there are many positives.”