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Wednesday November 2, 2011Gators Out to Prove They Still Have It at SEC Tournament

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As they packed their belongings on the bus Tuesday afternoon for the six-hour trip to Orange Beach, Ala. – site of this week’s SEC Tournament – you didn’t have to be a psychology major to understand what the Gators were thinking.

If there was any question, junior defender Kathryn Williamson, who just so happens to be a psychology major, shared the mood of the Florida soccer team following back-to-back home losses for the first time in the program’s 17-year history.

“There is a little vengeance in there,’’ Williamson said. “We just really want to fight for this. It’s back to business. We still believe in each other regardless if other people don’t.”

The Gators open defense of their 2010 SEC Tournament title on Wednesday night in a first-round match against Georgia. The No. 4-seed Gators’ trip to this point has been frustrating at times, not as much for the way they have played than the way others have played against them.

With a roster considered the SEC’s most talented by many in the college soccer community, the Gators thrive off their ball handling, passing and ability to finish plays. However, teams have been dropping as many as seven defenders into the box and preventing the Gators from doing what they do best.

Soccer purists say it’s not the way the game is supposed to be played. Fans get easily bored. The scorekeeper usually has little to do. Still, the Gators know that no one is going to feel sorry for them considering their success.

They can only keep doing what they do and hope results follow.

“We have nothing to lose and that involves playing on their end,’’ Williamson said, stressing the Gators will continue to be aggressive regardless of the defensive tactics used by opponents. “I feel like a lot of the goals that opponents have scored on us are because of our own turnovers on our end. If we are playing on their end, then the chances of them scoring on us are pretty slim.’’

The Gators lead all SEC teams with nine conference tournament titles and despite finishing 14-6, 7-4 in the SEC, Florida still had a chance to capture a share of the SEC regular-season title on Friday night at home against South Carolina.

Instead, the Gamecocks scored two early goals to set the tone. The Gators trimmed the lead to 2-1 when senior Tahnai Annis headed in a crossing pass from Annie Bobbitt in the 36th minute. However, the Gamecocks held on to do to the Gators what Florida did to them a year ago: win the regular-season finale as the visitor and claim the SEC title.

The loss sent the Gators to Orange Beach in an unfamiliar role of underdog. At least that is the way some may see it. The Gators – not so much.

“This is by far one of the best teams I’ve been a part of so far at Florida,’’ Williamson said. “It’s unfortunate because our record doesn’t really portray that.’’

Gators coach Becky Burleigh certainly hasn’t lost faith in this team. Despite a season-ending injury to playmaker McKenzie Barney, Burleigh knows there is enough talent on the roster for Florida to win another SEC tournament title.

“I don’t mind the underdog [role] but I’m not sure we actually have that status, because I think if you asked anybody in the SEC who they don’t want to play, it might be us,’’ Burleigh said. “But obviously results are results. The position we’re in is a little different than we’ve been in the past, and if that gives us a little chip on our shoulder to prove something, I’m all for it.’’

To get past Georgia, a team the Gators beat during the regular season and one that Burleigh considers one of the league’s most talented, the Gators want to avoid a repeat of the last four games of the regular season – three of them losses.

Florida failed to score first in each of the games, its only win during that stretch a 2-1 victory at Arkansas on Oct. 20 after falling behind 1-0 three minutes into the game.

“The early goals have been killing us,’’ junior midfielder Holly King said.

After Friday’s loss to South Carolina, the team took a much-needed break from soccer. Some of the players hung out in Gainesville over the weekend. Others went to Jacksonville for the Florida-Georgia football game.

Once the returned for practice in preparation for tonight’s SEC Tournament opener, they focused more on intangibles than “soccer-playing ability’’ according to Burleigh.

She wants them to have their minds right when the take the field against Georgia.

“We needed that break. We have moved on and we’re ready to go,’’ King said. “We all have a sour taste in our mouth. We have a fire lit. If teams are going to start bunkering on us and kick it and try to get one goal, for us it’s patience and just focusing on ourselves and playing our game.

“Playing so many teams that have been bunkering, we’re used to it now.’’

The test now is whether the Gators can play with enough patience, limit turnovers and cash in on their opportunities when they get them.

If they can, then another SEC Tournament title is within grasp. Even with the injuries, they believe the talent is there regardless of what the record says of late.

“We know how good we are and have been unable to prove that in the last month,’’ Burleigh said.


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