Florida's five game loss to Tennessee Sunday was disappointing in that it ended as phenomenal a run of dominance as we are likely to ever see. It was the first regular season loss in the SEC since 1994 (South Carolina) the first loss to any SEC team since 1997 (Arkansas, SEC Tournament final) and the first loss at home to an SEC opponent in Mary Wise's 14 years.
Still the setback could be a positive for UF, both in this weekend's SEC Tournament and on into the future. For the weekend, while Tennessee has to try and come down from the euphoria of defeating the Gators, Florida has newfound hunger and motivation. Since the Gators took the match to five games, but beat Tennessee in four earlier, Florida is still the number one seed and Tennessee has to face a strong Arkansas team in the semi-finals.
But it is in the long term where Florida has the most to gain. It has always been tough for the Gators entering tournament play when they haven't been seriously threatened in two months of SEC action. Should Tennessee remain a nationally-ranked program and Arkansas stay up there that would be the start of upgrading the challenge of winning the SEC. Add to it South Carolina and Georgia getting better, Florida's chances of being battle-tested come tournament time will improve. As the Gators pursue the ultimate goal of winning a national title, a tougher road through the SEC can only help.
All indications are the Gator program is set to remain elite for several years to come. Florida is playing three freshman much of the time and recruiting has re-stocked the middle with Gainesville's Kelsey Bowers and Kristina Johnson of Indianapolis… two members of the USA Volleyball A-2 Junior National Team. Florida has one scholarship remaining and I suspect it will be used to try and find a defensive specialist who excels at passing.
Freeman Career Was Been Amazing
The surprising first round exit for the Gator soccer team in the NCAA tournament brought a disappointing end to one of the most unique careers in Gator soccer history.
Perhaps no player in the history of Florida's Soccer program had a more unusual career than that of midfielder Stephanie Freeman. The Clearwater Countryside High School standout had a rather nondescript first two years at UF, missing most of her freshman season with an injury and failing to score a single goal in over 13-hundred minutes of playing time as a sophomore.
Last year, Florida needed to find some scoring punch, so Becky Burleigh asked Freeman to do more. She responded with seven goals including four game-winners and was named SEC Player of the Year. But that was just a warm-up for this year as Freeman put together an amazing campaign with 17 goals and is a sure-fire All-American for the second straight year. Think of it, 24 goals in the last two years, none in the first two. It's remarkable.
Stephanie Freeman might be the shortest non-gymnast of all Gator athletes, but she is a tireless worker and phenomenal competitor. She'll be missed, big time. Next week we'll take a look at what 2005 is likely to bring for the Gator soccer program.
Women's Hoops Faces Tall Order
Carolyn Peck's Women's Basketball team will try to match or improve on last year's 19-win season, but they will do so with a completely different style of play. The departure of star center Vanessa Hayden and her almost nightly double-double leaves Florida with one of the shorter rosters in the SEC. Peck hopes this year's edition of Florida Basketball will be quicker, take the ball to the basket more frequently and play full court defense. Look for Bernie Mosby to significantly increase her 13.4 average from last year, but the key to the season may well be getting solid post defense and rebounding from the trio of Brittany Davis, Delila Eshe and Briana Phillips.
That group of post-players combined for less than six points and seven rebounds a game last season. Those numbers will need to more than double this year if the Gators are to remain in the top half of the S-E-C.
The Gators open their season in the O'Connell Center when they host Florida State in a match up televised on Sunshine Network.
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