This story originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of Gator Country Magazine. VIP subscribers to GatorCountry.com receive the magazine in the mail every month, and copies are available throughout Gainesville.
Soccer players are typically aggressive, quick and athletic. Florida goalie Taylor Burke is no exception, but she exceeds any stereotype of what an average player might be.
The 6-foot-1, 18-year-old freshman from the small town of Medina, Ohio, is the epitome of “America’s sweetheart.” With blonde haired, bright eyes and a down-to-earth demeanor, Burke is a simple, family-oriented girl whose competitive nature was passed down through genetics.
“My mom was a cheerleader in college and high jumped for track in high school, and my dad played football and basketball in high school,” Burke said. “My family has always been sports-oriented.”
The family’s athletic heritage was evident in Burke at 4 years old when she gravitated to her first sport — soccer.
“My sister Lauren is three years older than me, and I started watching her play soccer, and I decided I wanted to play also,” she said.
Burke’s first coach, her father Bill, positioned her as forward.
“I was the tallest kid on the team,” she said, “so my dad decided to put me in as keeper and out of being a forward. I’ve just stuck with keeper ever since.”
Early on, it was a wise decision made by both father and daughter. Burke’s family’s heavy involvement in her life, especially in athletics, is the norm in Medina society.
“The Medina community is very involved in the athletics in town, especially high school sports,” Burke said. “We had the whole community backing us up. It was like one big family, and it’s one of the things I love the most about Medina.”
In seventh grade, Burke took interest in track in addition to soccer. She followed in her mother Julia’s footsteps with her decision to take on high jumping.
“I like that it (high jumping) is an individual sport. It’s something I can control the outcome in.” Burke stated, “And I have the best of both worlds: working with a team in soccer and having that bond, but also striving to succeed at a sport on my own.”
Burke was a natural, setting the middle school record in Medina during her 8th grade year. She cleared 5’7”.
Once high school started, Burke continued to play soccer and compete in track, in addition to picking up basketball to make her a triple athletic threat, something very rare for a student athlete in her town.
Burke’s passion for sports is clear when she reminisces about high school. Her eyes practically sparkled in sync with a gradually growing smile when she recalls, “I had a hard time deciding on what sport I loved the most. I couldn’t decide on which one I wanted to specialize in, so I just never chose between the three. My coaches always told me, ‘pick one sport, specialize in one sport,’ but I said no. I loved the different aspects of all of them and having them in different seasons to keep me busy all year.”
The dedication and spirit Burke put forth in all her sports resulted in local fame she could not have anticipated. In track, Burke pursued sprinting, long jumping, and her specialty, the high jump event.
She set the Ohio state record in 2009 by clearing 5’11” at an indoor event. She then went on to set another state record on June 4, 2011 when she cleared 6’1.25” in the outdoor high jump event at the OHSAA state track and field meet, an outstanding feat she achieved on her 18th birthday.
High school soccer lifted the honored track athlete to even greater state stardom.
“As a sophomore, Taylor was slated to be our backup goalie as we had a college-bound senior who was very good,” Doug Coreno, Burke’s varsity soccer coach at Medina High School, said.
“The senior got hurt the day before the first game of our season, a game at nationally-ranked and six-time state champion Walsh Jesuit. We threw Taylor in goal. She made nine saves and led us to a 3-1 victory. Her first varsity start on a day’s notice against one of the top programs in the nation, and she didn’t even flinch. I knew then that we had a special player.”
Burke’s accomplishments in soccer simply added to her ever-expanding list. She set the Ohio state record for shutouts with a total of 15 consecutive shutouts in 2010 and set the state record for shutouts in a season with a total of 18.
In addition, Burke played keeper for the Cleveland Futbol Club her last two years of high school and helped lead the team to achieve the 2010 State Cup and a series of Midwest Regional League championships.
A high school sports star and club soccer enthusiast, she also boasted academic excellence, earning honors for all four years of high school, in addition to securing a spot in Medina High’s National Honor Society.
“My mom kept me on a tight leash when it came to academics,” Burke said. “She made sure that the student in student athlete came first and I made it a goal to maintain good grades.”
Upon her 2011 graduation, the college athletic world was firmly in Burke’s grasp, and a handful of programs took notice of her talent. Burke was recruited by colleges across the nation, including North Carolina, Clemson, Penn State, Ohio State and Florida.
“I heard about Taylor from Jillian (Gators forward Jillian Graff), who I went to see play club soccer, and then I heard about her again from Pete (Jillian and Taylor’s club coach, Pete Demonte) so I had to just see her in person,” Florida head coach Becky Burleigh said.
“We went to the state finals to watch her, and unfortunately, it wasn’t much of a game for her,” Burleigh said. “The team won easily, but the semifinal was really the game. She sent us the DVD of the semifinal, and it was impressive.”
“Florida was one of the first visits I went on, and it was perfect,” Burke said. “I knew when leaving that I would compare every other school to Florida, and none could compare. Florida was the one where I knew I could play two sports and get a degree in the field (Social and Behavioral Sciences) I wanted.”
Burke signed on to be a goalkeeper for the Gators women’s soccer team and a high jumper for track and field in the spring.
Despite adjusting to the sweltering Florida heat, Burke hasn’t lost touch of her small town roots.
“I’ll miss the snow up in Ohio and the closeness of my family, but I like to keep in touch back home every chance I get,” she said.
When it comes to what she enjoys outside of her sports-dominated world, Burke mirrors the down-to-earth nature of USA Women’s National Team goalie Hope Solo.
“My family has a house in the Keys, and I just completely enjoy going out on the boat and going snorkeling,” Burke said. “It’s one of the best things to do.”
Although only a freshman, Burke has made quite the start on the soccer team.
“For not having played at the highest level of soccer all the time growing up and to have the soccer ability that she does, it is so impressive,” Burleigh said. “It is great to have two keepers starting in different situations and to be a freshman and take on a sort of leader responsibility. It’s challenging, but she has taken to it really well.”
Burke has taken to her role well, as one of Florida’s two keepers. Both Burke and senior Brooke Chancey have rotated throughout the year depending on the matchup.
Burke also has an advantage, according to Florida goalkeeper trainer Robert Liessem, who notes “the one thing that she does brilliantly, especially due to her high jump experience, is her ability to catch flighted balls that are one or two feet over any player on the field and being able to make those saves. It is something I haven’t seen in many keepers.”
In addition to her confidence in the net, Burke likes to believe in a thing called luck.
“I have this burro, this little donkey trinket that I got in 7th grade Spanish class,” Burke said. “I bring it with me to all the games. It’s just a good luck charm.”
She doesn’t question that she has more to learn and more to improve on in the game, as she had her first upset in goal in a 4-2 loss to Tennessee on the road.
“It was really frustrating to let up three goals in the first half. It’s something I just wasn’t used to,” Burke said. “I just had to come back mentally and apply the things I have learned since coming to the team and to just build my confidence back up.”
In adjusting to a college-level team, especially a Division I team, Burke didn’t hesitate to note it’s a different atmosphere than the club soccer she was used to playing. She has leaned on Chancey’s experience as a senior and fellow goalkeeper.
“I look up to Brooke so much and have learned so much from her already,” Burke said.
“I can always look to her for advice.”
Liessem said training Burke for the games consists of the typical fundamentals of soccer, in addition to footwork training and “aggression type saves” that will have her moving more in goal to save short-range shots.
“Taylor is a very physically gifted young lady and a truly amazing athlete,” Liessem said. “Some of the stuff that she does is inherent, and then we have to take her talent and learned abilities from there and incorporate them into the style of game she is going to learn here.”
Many soccer players look to the professionals for inspiration, but Burke pays homage to her family tree.
“My grandma is my biggest inspiration. She is a great woman and my number one fan, so I strive to make her proud when I play.”
That isn’t to say the big shots don’t inspire her, as well. Burke recalled meeting USA Women’s National Team stars and Florida alumnae Abby Wambach and Heather Mitts, who spoke to the team before a match against Texas Tech early in the fall.
“Meeting Heather and Abby was amazing,” Burke said. “They had so many great stories for us and inspired us greatly by telling the lessons they have learned out in the world.”
Burke has dreams of pursuing soccer after college, but right now thinks about her future in a different aspect.
“I’m thinking of changing my major to telecommunications on track for a career in broadcast journalism,” said Burke. “I definitely aspire to be the next Erin Andrews.”
Burke has already made a name for herself, and there is no doubt she will be a force to watch during her years at the University of Florida.
Whether Florida fans see her taking on the world for the USA in the Women’s World Cup or see her tackling sports coverage on the big screen, there’s little doubt the name Taylor Burke will be remembered for years to come.
– 2010 NSCAA High School All-American and Ohio’s State Player of the Year
– 2010 ESPN RISE All-America first team
– Named to 2010 and 2009 ESPN RISE Fall Ohio All-Star team
– As a Senior, named “Ms. Soccer” and Division I Ohio Player of the Year by OSSCA
– 2010 National Leader for Consecutive Shutouts (15)
– Most Valuable Player of 2010 and 2009 State Championship Team
– As a Senior, named Northeastern Ohio Conference Player of the Year
– Ohio Division 1 Outdoor State Title Winner for 3 Consecutive Years
– 2011 New Balance High Jump Champion
– 2010 Nike Indoor National High Jump Champion
– 2011 Nike Outdoor Track Nationals High Jump Champion
– 2010 All-Team USA selection by USA Today
– National Scholastic Sports Foundation All-American, 2010-2011
– Listed as No. 1 Indoors & No. 2 Outdoors in 2011 ESPN RISE National High School Jumps Preview
– Ohio Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches Indoor State High Jump Champion, 2009-2010
– Ohio Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches Indoor State High Jump Runner-Up, 2011