After spending months putting together an historic season, the Florida Gators women’s soccer team saw everything evaporate in a span of about 45 seconds in the Sweet 16 against Texas A&M Sunday at James G. Pressly Stadium.
The second-seeded Gators were leading 1-0 at the end of the first half when the Aggies, the region’s No. 3 seed, quickly struck twice to take a 2-1 lead that would hold up to be the final score. Aggies senior midfielder Laura Robinson and freshman midfielder Rebecca Herrera scored with five minutes remaining in the first half.
“It happened really quickly,” said senior forward Megan Kerns. “We weren’t set and they took advantage.”
It happened so fast that no one could explain the events in retrospect. Players and coaches said they would have to review the tape to figure out what happened on the play. Coaching and substitution decisions interrupted the team chemistry and helped contribute to the goals, said Florida coach Becky Burleigh. Florida used five substitutions in the first half, with two defensive substitutions coming minutes before the Aggies’ quick strikes.
“It’s a little bit of a downer to give up two late goals,” Burleigh said. “But we’ve been there all year, being down and coming back.”
The goals shocked the team as it was just minutes away from taking a lead into the half, but it did not crush the Gators’ hopes of putting together a rally of their own.
“Initially (at halftime), it was a little quiet,” Burleigh said. “But once we got out there, the momentum started building.”
The momentum almost brought the Gators back, as the team put together a furious rally in the final 10 minutes. Florida had two penalty kicks outside the goal box and shots that hit the crossbar and went just wide of the goal.
“They put us under a ton of pressure,” said Texas A&M coach G. Guerrieri. “I was holding my breath for most of it.”
As the clock was winding down, senior midfielder Ameera Abdullah received the ball a few feet away from the goal and was taken down in a play that resulted in a questionable no-call by the officials.
“I was hoping (the referee) would call a penalty kick,” Burleigh said. “But you never want to see anybody get hurt.”
Abdullah was carried off the field with two minutes after suffering an ankle injury in her last game in a Gators uniform.
The lone Gators goal came in the 17th minute as senior Liz Ruberry connected on a crossed ball from Angela Napolitano for her first goal of the season.
But the Gators were not able to connect on their other 10 shots. The Aggies outshot the Gators 16-11, with most of Florida’s opportunities coming in the last 10 minutes of the game.
“This is a disappointing finish to a terrific season,” Burleigh said. “Soccer is a game where things go your way sometimes and sometimes they don’t.”
This is the third straight Sweet 16 exit for the Gators, who successfully defending their regular-season SEC Title with an 11-0 record in conference.
But the disappointing end to the season will not deter the hopes for the future of this team, which consists primarily of freshmen. Florida’s 2008 class consisted of 16 freshmen and was the No. 8 ranked recruiting class in the nation by SoccerBuzz.com.
“This team has set a great building block for the future,” Burleigh said. “This class has had a major impact on our program.”
Even with a freshman-laden team, Florida was selected in the preseason by league coaches to defend its SEC title. But with such a young team, nobody knew what to expect this year.
“When you have that many new people come in you think, ‘How are you going to keep up the high standards?’” Burleigh said. “A huge credit to the success of this season goes to the seniors.”
The freshmen class will carry on the torch as the Gators hope to notch their third straight SEC regular-season championship as seniors Megan Kerns, Liz Ruberry and Ameera Abdullah leave the Gators.
“I’m just thinking about the year being over,” Ruberry said. “We definitely achieved more than people thought we would. I just hope next year the team gets past the Sweet 16.”