Burleigh's girls gear up for championship run

It is incredible the difference a year can make. At this time last year the UF women's soccer team was backing their way into the 64-team NCAA Soccer bracket after falling in the Southeastern Conference championship match to Tennessee on penalty kicks.

Determined to end the Volunteers two-year reign on the SEC, the Gators (16-3-3) did came through by winning the 2004 SEC tournament in double overtime, 2-1, putting their own orange and blue stamp on the conference they once dominated when they won the SEC title six consecutive seasons (1996-2001).

"Every championship is special," Coach Becky Burleigh said. "but this one may have been more so because it's been three years since we won. We wanted our seniors to set a legacy."

With the championship came an automatic NCAA bid for UF, which was announced as the number 10 seed for the tournament, drawing a match up with neighboring Central Florida (16-3-2). The Gators had their hands full with the Knights last year before senior Ashley Kellgren sealed the victory in double overtime.

Florida's run at the College Cup will be led by senior Stephanie Freeman, the 2003 and 2004 SEC Player of the Year. She leads the SEC in goals (16) and points (35) and leads in game-winning goals (5). In addition to being named All-SEC two straight years, Freeman was honorable mention in her sophomore year in 2002.

"This award really should be shared by our entire team because they all have contributed so much this season," Freeman said.

Along with Freeman and Kellgren, UF's other two seniors, Monica Hoyles and Christine Johnson, have played integral roles in the team success this season. Hoyles is the anchor of the defense, but her clutch golden goal against Tennessee gave the Gators their SEC trophy.

"Initially when I went up there it was just to hustle, to give someone the opportunity to get open or look for a rebound," said Hoyles of her championship clinching goal. "But when the ball came to me, I just thought 'corner'!

"We needed something to be a spark and they let me be the spark. I'm glad that I got another goal. I haven't scored in two years so I was glad to end the drought."

Burleigh acknowledged the fact that Hoyles, an anchor of the Florida defense, was moved up to offense by assistant coach Vic Campell.

"We wanted someone who knew what it was like to fight through, someone that could be a spark for us and Monica's athleticism is always dangerous," said Burleigh. "She's scored some big goals for us in the past and so we thought we'd try it. It was actually Vic's idea and it turned out to be a golden idea."

If the Gators behind their strong senior leadership can make it past UCF, another familiar foe could be waiting for them around the bend. Florida State, which knocked Florida out of the tournament last season, faces Boston College Friday at James G. Pressley Stadium.

The Gators begin their quest for a spot in soccer's Final Four at 3 p.m. Friday at Pressley Stadium on the University of Florida campus.

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