Florida soccer opens NCAA Tournament competition on Sunday afternoon against the Mercer Bears (14-5-2), hoping to shake recent inconsistency and early postseason departures from previous seasons.
The Gators (14-4-1) are one of four No. 2 seeds and host the first round at Dizney Lacrosse Stadium. This is UF’s 18th NCAA Tournament appearance in the program’s 20 year history, as well as the Gators’ 12th straight berth.
The first round match up comes 11 days after Florida’s surprise departure from the SEC Tournament, a 1-1 double overtime draw against Tennessee that ended with the Lady Vols earning the 5-4 edge in penalty kicks. In their last six matches, the Gators have only won three times, but the team is confident on extra rest.
“We have been on the road so much and that takes its toll on you,” head coach Becky Burleigh said. “For us to have a chance to have a whole weekend where we were able to rejuvenate, relax, and get our bodies back, now we can hit [the NCAA Tournament] pretty hard.”
Despite strong regular season campaigns, Florida’s fate in the NCAA Tournament has been lackluster in recent years. The Gators were bounced in the second round by Duke in 2013 and 2010, as well as to UCF in 2011. Especially on the heels on an unexpected SEC Tournament result, the team won’t look ahead beyond Mercer.
“I don’t look at all at the rest of the bracket. I know everybody says that, but I really don’t. I don’t even want a bracket in my office,” Burleigh said.
“There are players on their team that are teammates of some of our players from club. They’re not a team that we’re completely unfamiliar with. We’ve played them in the past, we’ve played them in the spring, and it’s a new regime there. They have a new coach, and I think he has been bringing a lot of energy to their program.”
Mercer head coach Tony Economopoulos joined the Bears in 2012 and has guided the program to steady improvement in his three seasons as coach. The Bears won the Southern Conference title 2-1 over Samford and return to the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in school history. Their first trip to the NCAAs in 2010 was spoiled by Florida, who took the victory 3-0.
Senior Lauren Gassie leads the Bears with 22 points off of nine goals and four assists, while junior goalkeeper Maggie Cropp has compiled a goals against average of 0.72 in 18 starts.
Florida’s lineup is a familiar one, led by a talented group of seniors while returning 12 of their top 13 contributors from the 2013 team. Sophomore Savannah Jordan leads the Gators with 36 points off of 15 goals and six assists, but her performance has been set up by seniors. Outside back Tessa Andujar leads the team with nine assists, but Havana Solaun ranks second on the team in goals (six), assists (eight) and points (20).
“I think a senior class always gives you urgency and they give that to you throughout the year, but I think it becomes more real to them as it gets closer to the postseason,” said Burleigh. “That’s something that I think we’re really going to enjoy seeing from our seniors; their ability to drive this group with their urgency.”
The winner of Florida/Mercer will take on the victor of San Diego State and California. SEC teams Auburn and Arkansas join Florida in the region. Elsewhere in the bracket, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and top seeded Texas A&M earned berths in the NCAA tournament as well.
Sunday’s match is set for 2pm.
To hear more from head coach Becky Burleigh, click below.