Some coaches fear expectations. This one embraces them.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to have higher expectations than we have of ourselves,” Florida soccer coach Becky Burleigh said this week. “This team is very motivated. We really want to go farther than we’ve been before. Last year was the Sweet 16. I think we’ll be disappointed if we can’t get past that.”
Florida was two wins away from a Final Four appearance last fall before a 3-2 loss to UCLA ended the season and left a young team wanting more.
“This team proved that they were a good team and can compete with any team in the nation,” Burleigh said. “I think we have a long way to go to get better, but at the same time we have to build off last year to get better. We definitely have to bring everything together.”
Collective optimism stems from the return of 10 starters off last year’s Southeastern Conference championship team, including All-SEC selections Ameera Abdullah, Stacy Bishop and Lauren Hyde. Bishop, a forward, led the Gators in points (30), goals (12) and assists (six).
Bishop, in her second UF season after transferring from LSU, is one of eight Gator seniors. Five are projected starters.
“A lot of them have played most of their careers,” said Burleigh, whose club is ranked seventh nationally by SoccerBuzz.com. “That’s a big deal. We’re experienced all the way through the lineup.”
None are worldlier than Melanie Booth, the star defender, who has spent the last year training with the Canadian National team. The former All-SEC pick will re-join the Gators after the women’s World Cup ends in late September.
UF finished 14-6-5 last season without Booth. Imagine the Gators with her.
“(Her return) is huge,” Burleigh said. “Just her coming back with that type of experience is gigantic. Not only the experience, she’s a veteran, she’s been a quality player. We’re real excited for her to get back.”
Fatigue may be an issue. World Cup preparation can be a grind.
“We’ve talked with her about it — the mental and physical,” Burleigh said. “She’s had a long haul of soccer the last few months. We told her she has to be honest with us and tell us what she’s feeling because we can’t read her mind. If she needs a little bit of time (off) or can’t play 90 minutes a game, then we’ll accommodate that.”
Florida’s immediate concern is in goal. Gone from last year is Brittni Goodwin (8 shutouts). The top two keeper candidates to replace her are Katie Fraine and Meghan Berlings.
“Katie was here all spring,” Burleigh said. “She played against really good competition and was successful. Hopefully that carries over. I thought she did well. We were very happy with her.”
Even with a new goalkeeper, Florida finished 4-0-1 in spring play, beating Atlantic Coast Conference powers North Carolina (1-0) and Duke (4-0) along the way. The only blemish was a 2-2 tie against Texas A&M.
A strong preseason, however, does not ensure regular-season success.
“I think it depends on how you take it, how you approach it,” Burleigh said. “It could be misleading. What we wanted to get out of it, we did, which was to play really good competition and see where we stacked up.”
UF first match—albeit an exhibition—is set for Aug. 25 against Texas A&M. A week later, the Gators host Indiana for their regular-season opener. Plenty of preparation remains.
“There are a couple positions that have yet to be ironed out in terms of people grabbing a hold of them in the spring,” Burleigh said. “But when you add five freshmen that changes things as well. They’re going to push for playing time, so it just depends on how things work out. The preseason is really a good time to make a good impression and get the base that they need to get playing time in the regular part of the season. It doesn’t matter how much people played in the spring. Everyone wants to play in the fall. That’s when it counts.”
Non-conference competition stiffens considerably on Sept. 2 when 2006 national runner-up Notre Dame struts into Gainesville, a week before rival Florida State visits.
“I think we need to find out what we need to get better at,” Burleigh said. “As we get closer and closer to postseason in the regular season, we really have to figure out our strengths and weaknesses. We need to do that by testing ourselves.”