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Florida's 20th soccer season opens Friday night at home versus Miami.

Thursday August 21, 2014'Where has the time gone?' Burleigh Leads Gators into 20th Soccer Season

Florida's 20th soccer season opens Friday night at home versus Miami.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- No birth certificate exists to commemorate the arrival, but the official date was June 18, 1993. That’s when Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley put to the University Athletic Association Board a proposal to make women’s soccer UF’s 17th sanctioned sport. 


Gator Soccer Firsts

First Goal:

4:48 by Aimee Wagstaff, vs. FSU (Sept. 2, 1995)

First Assist:

15:43, Sarah Currie on Aimee Wagstaff’s second goal vs. FSU (Sept. 2, 1995)

First Save:

Lynn Pattishall, vs. UCF (Sept. 3, 1995)

First Double-Goal Match:

Aimee  Wagstaff vs. FSU (Sept. 2, 1995)

First Crowd:

4,442 vs. FSU (Sept. 2, 1995)

First Match:

4-0 win vs FSU (Sept. 2, 1995)

First Road Match:

2-1 win at Kentucky (Sept. 8, 1995)

First Loss:

0-2 loss at Vanderbilt (Sept. 10, 1995)

First Tie:

0-0 (2OT) vs. Georgia (Oct. 15, 1995)

First Shutout:

4-0 win vs FSU (Sept. 2, 1995)

First National Ranking:

No. 22 by Soccer News on Oct. 3, 1995

Approval was unanimous that day -- and went next level 807 days later. 


On Sept. 2, 1995, Florida soccer made a smashing debut by shutting out a certain other first-year program, Florida State, by a 4-0 score before a raucous crowd of 4,442 at what was then known as Percy Beard Stadium. 


And off the Gators went.  


“I think back to that game and think how time has flown by,” said Coach Becky Burleigh, who was 26 years old when UF introduced soccer to its fan base and is still kicking here nearly two decades later. “I can’t even wrap my mind around that. Where did the time go?” 


Into the history books, that’s where, along with 337 victories, 13 Southeastern Conference championships, 10 league tournament titles, 17 NCAA Tournament berths and that stunning 1998 national crown in just the program’s fourth season. 


Now comes Season 20. 


The defending SEC champion Gators, who open their 2014 campaign Friday night at home against state rival Miami, are preseason picks to win the league again, with every starter back from a team that went 18-5-1 and advanced to the NCAA’s Second Round, including one of the nation’s top offensive forces in sophomore forward Savannah Jordan. 


Jordan, like most of her current teammates, wasn’t even a year old when Burleigh led that first Florida team onto the field. 


In 1993, the SEC took a cue amid a national conversation about Title IX and gender equity by passing a rule that its athletic programs were required to have two more women’s sports than men’s sports in an effort to create scholarship opportunities for women. Just three weeks later, the UAA board signed off on soccer, with a target date to field a team in 1995. The annual cost to operate a program with 11 scholarships from its outset would hover around $400,000. 


So in August of ’95, the Gators took the practice field for the first time, armed with 31 players; 27 were freshmen, and the rest either transfers or walk-ons. 


Leading them was Burleigh, by way of NAIA Berry College, which she had led to a couple national titles before her 25th birthday. A year earlier, Foley and a search committee headed by then women’s athletic director Ann Marie Rogers, were bowled over by Burleigh’s knowledge, enthusiasm, organization and plan for the future.


When she went to work she was starting from scratch. 


“It was the first sport Florida had added in a long time [since volleyball was reinstated in 1984] and all the other Gator programs were so good, I knew I had to be good,” said Burleigh, who was joining a Gators party in the middle of Steve Spurrier’s football hey day, Lon Kruger’s back-to-back NCAA berths and Mary Wise’s rise to dominance on the volleyball court. “That was a big part of it; trying to live up to everybody else. But we had so much help from the other teams and coaches, which made the transition easier.” 


When Burleigh had questions, her coaching colleagues offered advice. Since she had no players, recruits were hosted by athletes from volleyball, track and other sports. And when it finally came time to work with players, Burleigh shared the football practice fields with Spurrier while hers was under construction. 


The first group of players -- led by the likes of Erin Baxter, Melissi Pini and Tracy Ward -- had no one to show them the ropes. There were no underclassmen to explain how hard the workouts would be, how the coaches would react in certain situations or how to get to the book store. 


“It was the blind leading the blind,” Burleigh said. 


But not where she was concerned. 


Burleigh had won big at Berry, which was significant (even if Berry wasn’t very big). A head coach since the age of 19, Burleigh was named NAIA National Coach of the Year during both her championship seasons (1990, ’93) and also was heavily involved in regional development organizations. She not only knew the game, but knew coaches and players throughout the South. And beyond. 


Assistant coach Vic Campbell had come from Methodist College, a Division III program in North Carolina. Campbell also had logged many hours in the developmental side of the game.


They may not have realized it at the time, but Burleigh and Campbell were ready. 


“I thought we had a nice nucleus to work with because Becky had recruited some regional players I knew were pretty good,” Campbell recalled. “But honestly, there was some apprehension on my part as to whether I was good enough to coach and make the transition not just into Division I, but to the SEC. After that first season, though, it was clear we belonged.” 


It started with that first game. 


Credit UF’s marketing department for pegging a Saturday at 2 p.m., for the Gators inaugural soccer game. That was four hours before Spurrier and the football team were to kickoff their 1995 season against Houston. The first 1,000 fans got T-shirts that said “I WAS THERE” and the UF players welcomed the crowd by firing ceremonial mini-soccer balls into the bleachers. 


Five minutes in against the Seminoles, Aimee Wagstaff had the first goal in UF history. About 10 minutes later, she had another. Victory No. 1 was just a matter of time. 


“Soccer walks on water,” UF’s fired-up president John Lombardi said afterward. “Those kids are well coached and played their hearts out. Gator soccer is well launched. The spirit of the crowd was terrific. I think people saw in that team, the coaches and the field another first-class program taking rise.” 


In that first year, the Gators went 14-4-2, placed second in the SEC Eastern Division and fell short of reaching the NCAA field after losing to Auburn in the conference tournament on penalty kicks. 


If Burleigh questioned at all that her program had arrived on the UF scene, that changed when Spurrier called out her name across a crowded Yon Hall lunch room the day after the Auburn loss. 


“Coach Becky! You better work on those penalty kicks.” 


“At least he was paying attention,” she said. 


A lot of people were. 


Now comes Season 20, and a lot still are. 



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