Last week was for practice; this week is for real.
So it is for Florida’s soccer team, which begins the regular season this weekend with matches against Indiana and second-ranked Notre Dame, a week after thumping fifth-ranked Texas A&M, 3-1, in an exhibition match.
“We’re really excited about this weekend,” UF soccer coach Becky Burleigh said. “Even though we played an exhibition game, playing real matches is where we’re at for this team. I think it worked out well for our team and gave them confidence. A&M is a quality team and we’re excited that they came down and played us. That was huge preparation for us. We got to play everyone and we got out of there with a win and no injuries, so we can’t ask for a whole lot more than that out of an exhibition. Going into this weekend against Indiana and Notre Dame, both are quality teams. Notre Dame is a terrific team. Both (teams) will pose different problems for us.
“In their own way, they’re both very challenging teams for us. We’re just excited to kick it off and get going.”
The season-opener against Indiana is set for Friday at 7 p.m.; two days later, second-ranked Notre Dame rumbles into Gainesville for a 1:30 showdown on Sunday afternoon at Pressly Stadium. Preparation has begun for both foes.
“We’re off on Mondays, then we train Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, so we’ll spend part of the week focusing on Indiana, part on Notre Dame and most of the week focusing on ourselves,” Burleigh said. “For us, it’s about what we do well. If we do what we’re capable of doing, I think we can play with anyone in the country, but I think we have to be prepared for the opponent, so we will talk about those teams.”
Florida, ranked 13th nationally, returns 10 starters. The only issue is in goal. The Gators have to replace Brittni Goodwin, who started as a senior last fall.
“Right now the starter is Katie Fraine, the backup is Meghan Berlingo,” Burleigh said. “Both are capable goal keepers. I thought both played well in the exhibition. We’re excited about that position. It’s our least experienced position, but as far as our level of play there, it’s been excellent. We’re happy with both of them.”
The Gators will rely on veteran leadership. They have eight seniors, twice as many as last year. More experience has yielded higher expectations. Florida won the SEC last year and advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing, 3-2, at UCLA.
“I think the players want to do more than they did last year,” Burleigh said. “Last year, we lost in the Sweet 16 and we’d like to go beyond that. There’s a lot of games before that happens. Right now, we’ve got to focus on the two this weekend.
“I think this team understands that every team we play, it’s a big match for them, and it’s a big match for us, so there’s not someone we can take for granted. Any time we step on the field, we have to be prepared to play. Our system relies on us being sharp and if we’re not… Our players know we have to be physically and mentally ready to play when we step on the field.”
After Notre Dame, other quality opponents await. On Sept. 9, the Gators face No. 6 Florida State; and on Sept. 14, they visit No. 20 Illinois.
“I like having a hard schedule, I always like having a hard schedule,” Burleigh said. “If you play good teams early on, it lets you know where your strengths and weaknesses are. You’ll find out where your holes are; you’ll find out what you can do against good teams. That’s something we’ve done and traditionally and will keep doing. I’d rather find out now than in the postseason or the SEC season. It’s important for us to get ready. Playing these tough teams is just what we need.”
Last year was about establishing confidence. This year’s about fortifying that foundation.
“This year the mindset is we know that we can play with everyone,” Burleigh said. “Now we can start that from the very beginning of games and not feel our way into games. I think that’s a huge difference for this team.”
Florida’s golf season does not begin for nearly two weeks, but the Gator men’s team has a head start. Five UF players—Billy Horschel, Tyson Alexander, Manuel Villegas, Chappell Brown and Andres Echavarria played in the 2007 U.S. Amateur last week in San Francisco. Of the five, only Horschel advanced to match play. Nevertheless, coach Buddy Alexander feels the collective experience gained from competing in one of golf’s most prestigious events will pay off.
“When you have five guys at the Amateur, that is a huge positive from a confidence standpoint for those kids, but also from an experience standpoint playing in that kind of golf tournament on that kind of golf course,” said Alexander, who won the 1986 U.S. Amateur. “When you play in U.S. Amateurs you get a little bit different feel in terms of the golf course. The greens are harder, faster. The rough’s longer and typically, there’s only a few places a year that guys might get to see that, the NCAA being one of those. So when you get a guy who’s played in those conditions at an Amateur, that’s just one more time, one more experience that should be helpful in the NCAA regional and the NCAA championship. That was positive from that respect.”
The outlook for 2007 appears quite rosy. Florida finished ninth at last year’s NCAA championship. And all five players from that group return, including two-time
All America Billy Horschel. Two of the five—Toby Ragland and Horschel—were sophomores. Two—Tyler Brown and Villegas—were juniors. One –Tim McKenney – was a freshman.
All return. Naturally expectations have escalated.
“Someone asked me last year about expectations and what to expect and I said, ‘diaper rash,.’’’ Alexander said. “We certainly can’t say that this year. Three freshmen played extensively last year. They’re now sophomores. Sophomores are now juniors and juniors seniors. We’re not going to use the youth thing anymore, but it’s still a very young team… Typically guys make strides between their freshman and sophomore years.
“My guess is this team will be pretty good. Are we a top-five team? I think we could or should be. That remains to be seen.”
Horschel is the Gators’ top gun. However, he will miss a stretch of the fall season because of a conflict with Walker Cup play, competition that pits the United States’ top amateurs against the best from Ireland and Great Britain.
“(Billy’s) going to miss at least two tournaments in the fall,” Alexander said. “That’s going to give the younger guys an opportunity to get in and see what they can do. The bad news is we’re simply not going to be as competitive. Obviously, that makes me a little bit nervous going into a new season not knowing exactly what you’ve got with your big dog not around. Without trying to, we’re going to coach a little differently this semester in that we’re going to be without our best player.”
Florida’s volleyball team opens its home schedule at 12:30 p.m. Friday against Georgia Southern in the Campus USA Credit Union Invitational. GSU may not seem like a natural fit, but there’s a story behind the scheduling of the match, a connection that helped bring the two schools together on the hardwood.
Georgia Southern’s coach is Nicole McCray, a Gator volleyball alumna, who played for Wise from 1998-2002. She is also the older sister of Amber McCray, the Gators’ senior opposite hitter.
“It’s kind of a special thing,” Wise said. “How many families have a Division I head coach playing against a Division I player? To play Georgia may not seem as intriguing to our fans on paper, but I think it’s a great setup. Nicole was a terrific player for us. Obviously, her younger sister is as well. We’re in our 10th year of coaching a McCray. Now they go head-to-head.”
A few hours after facing Georgia Southern, the seventh-ranked Gators, who defeated Illinois State (3-0) and Notre Dame (3-1) last weekend, take on North Carolina State at 7:30; Saturday, they welcome Santa Clara at 4.
“The bottom line is we’re 2-0, which is better than the alternative,” Wise said. “Based on some of things we didn’t do well—especially blocks—we have a lot to work on. But you would expect that early in the season. We’re starting from a good place. We just think we can get a whole lot better.”