The two losses seem long gone now. The 14th-ranked Florida Gators erased the bad memory of two losses last weekend with an emphatically physical victory over Duke, 2-1, before a crowd of 2,251 at James G. Pressly Stadium.
Through slide tackles and shoves, four first-half fouls, six-second half fouls and a yellow card, the Florida (4-2, 0-0 SEC) became the bully. That’s in stark contrast to what happened to them last weekend against UCLA when the Bruins got very physical with the Gators.
All week, Florida coach Becky Burleigh and her players focused on the loss to UCLA and how the Bruins were able to beat them up. Friday night, they were determined that this game was going to be different.
“This game was definitely physical,” sophomore midfielder Lindsay Thompson said. “We felt like UCLA kind of physically took it to us, and we don’t want that to happen again.”
It was Thompson who broke the game open and finally gave the Gators a first-half goal in the 41st minute. Before Thompson could fire off her shot, the ball bounced off the heads of teammates Brooke Thigpen head and Tahnai Annis before landing five yards outside the goal. It was in perfect position for Thompson to calmly put the ball in the net.
“Once it passed their defensive line and I was running onto it, I knew I was probably gonna score,” Thompson said. “I just had to make sure to kick it past the goalie.”
Duke responded with a goal from Chelsea Canepa just two minutes later, leaving the first half almost a statistical tie all the way across the box score. The Gators and Blue Devils each finished the first half with seven shots on goal and a corner apiece.
Things changed in the second half. Freshman midfielder Brooke Thigpen got the game-winning, her second of the season.
After last weekend when the Gators struggled offensively, Burleigh saw increased offensive success thanks to a more well-rounded attack. She said that she was happy to see her midfielders get more involved in the offensive attack, which spread out the field against the Blue Devils’ defense.
“I think it was a very important win for us,” Burleigh said. “That was a tough Duke team, and they scrapped, but I was really happy with the way that we fought back.”
She, too, stressed the importance of the physical nature of the game.
“I think what I’m most happy with is our team’s physical effort,” Burleigh said. “You know, we played much tougher than we have, at a faster pace than we have, and I like those things.”
Even with the yellow card to senior Angela Napolitano?
“I don’t mind yellow cards,” the coach said, “as long as they come from physical play.”
The second half was a much-more lopsided effort. The Blue Devils were only able to get three shots on goal and weren’t awarded a corner kick. The Gators equaled their first half output with seven shots on goal and were awarded three quarters.
The shots on goal statistics are especially enlightening because the Gators came into the game with just 55 shots on goal, compared to Dukes’s 129.
“The way we play, we’ve said all year, is that the second half is our half,” Burleigh said. “I mean, our conditioning pays off, and we have a great strength and conditioning coach. But part of it is just the pressure. When you keep pressuring a team, they get tired in the second half.”
The condition certainly paid off for senior midfielder Lauren Hyde, who played all 90 minutes of the back-and-forth game.
“After the first half,” Hyde said, “I was dead. I was running to our goal then to theirs and back. There was a lot of defense to be played in this game by the midfielders, I think.”
She said that the Gators have the hardest conditioning program in the nation.
“All the players could probably play for 90 minutes,” she said. “It’s not just something we work into to practice through playing; we take time out of practice to do extra running.”
For all her work, Hyde rarely shows up in the box score at the end of games. She was responsible for thwarting Blue Devils’ goals one minute and contributing to the Gators’ goals the next.
“You know, I don’t really care about showing up in the box score, I just like to be able to contribute all across the field,” she said. “I think I play better when I can play partly forward and partly defense.”
The game, she said, will put the Gators back on track.
“You know, after coming out of last week, this shows that we have a lot of heart. We like to win these type of games, and we’re going to continue to win these type of games.”
Then again, maybe those losses haven’t left. Maybe they journeyed deep into the team and decided to stay.
Maybe they breathed life into the bully.