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Juniors Havana Solaun (left) and Annie Speese are the Gators' top returning scorers.

Thursday August 22, 2013The Next Chapter: Gators Looking for New Leaders to Emerge

Juniors Havana Solaun (left) and Annie Speese are the Gators' top returning scorers.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The sequence played out for Becky Burleigh so many times the last four years she probably stopped watching. Not for lack of interest, but because the end result was a given. 


Kat Williamson thwarts an attack from a Florida opponent somewhere near the box, takes control of the ball, then speeds up the field while her teammates set up. 


When a player starts all but one of her 81 career matches and consistently does her job, and does it well, that’s a coach’s security blanket. 


Burleigh, in fact, wrapped herself in several the last few years. 


“They’re gone,” she said. “That’s reality.” 


Over the last four years, Williamson, midfielders Holly King and Jo Dragotta, plus midfielder Erika Tymrak and forward McKenzie Barney combined to play in 446 matches and log nearly 31,000 minutes. Together, they were part of teams that turned in a four-year record of 71-21-6 and claimed three Southeastern Conference titles. 


Four of those players (Williamson, Tymrak, King, Dragotta, along with forward Adriana Leon, who transferred to UF last season) are now playing professionally, by the way. 


“And they’re all starting for their teams,” Burleigh added.


Such is life for a college coach. In the case of Burleigh, who’s set to open her 24th collegiate season and her 19th at Florida, she’s been down this road before -- she’s said goodbye to lots of great players in nearly two decades -- and knows there are no quick fixes. 


The ninth-ranked Gators, who return six starters from a team that went 19-5-1 and advanced to NCAA Tournament’s round of 16, have a collective clue, too. Not only were those former teammates like King, Tymrak and Williamson talented, but they were strong personalities and leaders. 


Time for others to emerge. 


“We definitely have some shoes to fill and it’s going to take a while to replace them,” said junior midfielder Havana Solaun said as the club sets to open the 2013 season Friday night against Florida Gulf Coast at Pressly Stadium. “We have the players to do it, though, if everybody steps up and pulls their weight. That’s how we’re going to fill in the gaps.” 


Returnees such as Solaun, junior midfielder Annie Speese and senior defender Taylor Travis, as well as the impact of the eight newcomers will not be expected to perform with the poise and consistency of King or Tymrak from Day 1. King and Tymrak didn’t even do that. 


Each player has to put their own spin on their spot. The process began last weekend in a scrimmage at UCF. 


The Gators lost 2-0. 


“Best thing that could have happened to us,” Burleigh said. 


The defeat allowed the UF coaching staff to identify areas -- physicality on defense; attacking aerial balls; width and spacing across the field -- and target them as points of emphasis heading into the season. 


“The good thing about an exhibition match is we get to an opportunity to see ourselves against people we haven’t seen yet,” Speese said. “It was a really good opportunity to get out some of the initial kinks before the season starts.”


Tactical items are easily addressed. 


Intangible ones, like gaining experience and forging an identity, need the highs and lows that only a season can provide. 


“I didn’t play here last fall, but I feel like we have a lot of people who really want to make an impact on this team,” said Nora Neset Gjøen, a 21-year-old freshman goalkeeper from Norway. “There’s a will to set an example that is so pressing. Hopefully, that will be enough.” 


It’ll take more than that. Burleigh has given them some ideas. When the players first reported, they sat down and came up with a list of words they would want to define the program. 


Relentless. Heart. Respected. Classy. Disciplined. 


“We want to have all the true team characteristics,” Speese said. 


And, ultimately, some successful ones, too. The kind that show up in the victory column. 


“You don’t lose five pros and expect to be exactly where you were,” Burleigh said. “But at the same time, I feel we have some different strengths in this group. We just have to exploit those strengths. That may take us a little while. We’ve got to work ourselves into what those strengths are and how we bring them out.”



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