Giving Other Sports Their Due - Part 2

Well we spent a week looking at the best football seasons that came up short of a national title and followed that up with the same examination of Gator basketball. But as we point often in this space, Florida's greatness as an athletic program is in the Gators' success across the board from football to golf and baseball to cross country.

There are too many teams to narrow it down to the six best non-championship seasons in school history, so instead we'll look at the dozen best seasons, two each day. Today, in part two of our series we remember great seasons for Gator soccer and women's basketball.

#12 Men's Tennis 2000 #11 Women's Tennis 1980

#10 Soccer 1996 -----
It was just the second season for coach Becky Burleigh and her fledgling soccer program, but it was already obvious Florida had the right person building its program. The Gators had gone 14-4-2 in year one, and everyone expected improvement; but maybe not quite this much improvement.

The biggest reason for the improvement was the arrival of Danielle Fotopolous who transferred in from SMU. Fotopolous was an All-American in Dallas and the Florida native resumed her high scoring ways in Gainesville. She put the ball in the net 34 times in '96, a record that still stands today. Erin Baxter joined Fotopolous on the All-SEC first team while Melanie Freeman and Adrianne Moreira and Melissa Pini were second team choices.

Florida opened the season with five straight wins, outscoring their opponents 14-1. After a 2-1 loss to a strong Texas A&M team the Gators went nuts, winning twelve straight matches by a ridiculous 59-4 score. Duke ended the Gator run in a one nothing match, but Florida rebounded to beat Tennessee, Auburn and Arkansas to clinch the SEC Championship. the NCAA Tournament bid, the first in school history sent the Gators up against a trio of teams form the ACC. Florida Dominated NC State (7-3) and Wake Forest (5-0) before the Gators season ended at the hands for soccer super power North Carolina. Still 1996 was a great year, not just because the Gators won the SEC and finished with a 22-3 record. It was one of the great seasons in UF history because it put Florida soccer on the map in just the second year of the program. The Gators have been NCAA Tournament regulars ever since, earning bids every year but one (‘02) since.

#9 Women's Basketball 1997 ----- Carol Ross had made Florida an NCAA program in her six years on the job; leading Florida to four bids in a row after two seasons of getting things built up. Year seven would turn out to be the best in school history.

It really didn't start out that way, however as the Gators dropped a double overtime game at Texas and added losses to Memphis State and Georgetown to open up 3-3. then Ross' gals took off winning five in a row and 12 of 13. More importantly the Gators had beaten Tennessee and Vanderbilt and were 5-0 in the SEC. Florida dropped a game at Georgia but one three more to prove they were legit SEC contenders. Home losses to top ten teams Alabama and Georgia (again) took the Gators out of title contention, but they did finish 9-3 in the league.

The Gators followed up a strong regular season with a run to the SEC Tournament title game before falling to Auburn. Still the Gators had not only earned their fifth straight NCAA bid, they would host for the first time in school history. Decisive wins over Florida International and Southern Cal propelled Florida to its first Sweet 16 appearance in West Lafayette, Indiana. The Gators knocked off traditional power Louisiana Tech and suddenly Florida was one win from the Final Four. What followed was the most physical women's basketball game I have ever seen and when the Gators last chance shots (3) were slightly off line the season was over at 24-9.

This season marked the end of the greatest career in Gator history as future Olympian DeLisha Milton led the team with 18.6 points and 8.9 rebounds. Junior Muriel Page chipped in a double-double averaging 15.8/10.3. Dana Smith and Talatha Bingham added long range shooting while Mahogany Hudson (170 assists) and Tiffany Travis (7/1/2.6) were also key contributors.

As Amanda Butler builds the Florida program she'll have this team in her sights. And she knows it well, having served as an assistant coach that year.

Questions or comments? Contact FightinGators.com's Larry Vettel


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