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Op-Ed \ Carol Wiedner

Burleigh keeps her promise to Florida seniors by delivering title.

By Carol Wiedner
Special to SoccerTimes

Becky Burleigh GREENSBORO, N.C. (Sunday, December 6, 1998) -- Four years ago, Florida womenís head coach Becky Burleigh made a promise to the program's first recruiting class -- before you graduate, you'll win a national championship.

Most people (including me) just laughed.

Sunday, the Gators got the last laugh by beating the North Carolina 1-0 in the NCAA championship game. And they did it with defense.

The Gators' preferred style of play is equivalent to the full-court press in basketball. They pressure you all over the field, throwing their bodies into the play and trying to force you to make a mistake. They usually get numbers up on offense, taking shot after shot and scrambling for any rebounds.

It's not "the beautiful game", but it's effective. However, today, North Carolina was able to impose its familiar style of play on the game, keeping the Gators back in their own half of the field for much of the match and forcing them to play defense.

To a Gator fan, that's a nerve wracking sight. Traditionally, defense has been the Gator's weak point. However, this past offseason, lightning struck for the second and third time, as two more key transfers joined.

Striker Danielle Fotopoulos in decided the grass was greener in Florida in 1997. This year, defender Erin Gilhart, a second team All-American at Michigan last year, stepped into the heart of the defense in front of goalkeeper Meredith Flaherty, who had been a first team all-Atlantic Coast Conference selection while at Clemson.

Flaherty has been a commanding presence all season; quick off her line, athletic, and vocal, the Gator attack frequently starts with an intelligent clearance by Meredith, usually to Keisha Bell at right back. I've watched Keisha, just a freshman, grow from a player whose passes missed more often than not and who frequently looked lost on the field, into a young woman who makes confident runs up the right side, placing dangerous crosses into the path of striker Abby Wambach and Fotopoulos.

Wambach, the other Gator "super-frosh," is big, fast and fearless -- a worthy successor to Fotopoulos up front. But Sunday was Danielle's day to shine, and she took charge of this match early, scoring her 118th career goal in the sixth minute. The winning goal came off a free kick from just outside the box, which Fotopoulos crushed over the wall and into the back of the net.

Congratulations to all the Gators, especially those players who took coach Burleigh at her word four years ago and created this program from scratch -- Erin Baxter, Kerri Doran, Michelle Harris, Genie Leonard, Kelly Maher, Adrianne Moreira, Lynn Pattishall, Melissa Pini, Katie Tullis and Tracy Ward.

The University of Florida -- your 1998 NCAA Women's Soccer Champions. GO GATORS!

Carol Wiedner is a been a Florida Gators fan since the programís inception four years ago, though she never attended or worked at the university. She can be e-mailed at thebug@worldnet.att.net.

Articles and opinions expressed by other columnists are not necessarily the opinion of SoccerTimes.