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Florida may not look familiar to its familiar Final Four foe

Underclassmen have played well with the Gator vets this season. They face Santa Clara today for the second time in the national semifinals since 1998.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 7, 2001


A year after its season abruptly was ended in a second-round upset in the NCAA women's soccer tournament, Florida is preparing to play in its second Final Four in the program's seven-year history.

Florida (21-3-1) plays Santa Clara (21-2) in the NCAA College Cup at 8:30 tonight at Gerald Ford Stadium in Dallas. The winner advances to Sunday's national championship game against the North Carolina-Portland winner.

If senior All-American Abby Wambach was told at the end of last season that this is where the Gators would be in 2001, she wouldn't have bought it.

"No way," said Wambach, one of four Gators in their second NCAA semifinals. "I am astonished to see how well this team has panned out and to see how well the underclassmen have stepped it up in the postseason. We've got three or four girls that have scored this postseason, which is unheard of. That just shows the loyalty and dedication they have."

One of those is freshman Monica Hoyles. It's not like she never had scored a winning goal. But it was nothing like the one she kicked on Sunday.

On a team filled with All-SEC and All-America players, it was Hoyles' goal in overtime that extended the Gators season.

"It was so exciting," she said. "I was just hoping I could go out and pass it to someone else to score. I don't think I could ever score a more fun goal."

This will be the second time Florida meets Santa Clara in the NCAA semifinals -- the Gators won 1-0 in 1998. But Florida will be without senior All-America defender Keisha Bell, who torn her ACL in practice last week.

"They (Santa Clara) are a good team," Florida coach Becky Burleigh said. "Aly Wagner is a legitimate player-of-the-year candidate and she has a great surrounding cast. They are athletic, they play constructive soccer. They are a good team."

So, too, are the Gators. And it's all part of a concerted effort to make wholesale changes after last season's collapse.

"There is so much different about this year, you could write pages," Burleigh said. "It's just a whole different attitude. People are more excited about ... practice, they are more positive. There are not as many injuries as last year and we have a more consistent lineup."

Wambach is a big part of this season's success. She leads the nation in points (3.21) and goals (1.34) per game, and is a finalist for two national player-of-the-year awards.

"I think Abby has a real good feel for the game tactically and technically," Burleigh said. "She has technical, physical, tactical and psychological dimensions going for her."

For Wambach, the accolades take a back seat for now, she has bigger goals in mind.

"(Individual honors are) definitely icing on the cake," she said. "This past year, I dedicated myself to soccer, staying fit and doing all the things I needed to do to get here. But most importantly for me is the national championship right now. If I help my team win a national championship, then all the other stuff will come along. It's all secondary."

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