Westphal anchoring strong defense
Published: Tuesday, November 5, 2013 at 11:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 5, 2013 at 11:58 p.m.
The way Christen Westphal sees it, she has the best of both worlds.
SEC soccer tournament
Who: No. 5 Florida (15-3-1, 8-2 SEC) vs. Arkansas (13-7, 5-6 SEC)
When: 6 p.m. today
Site: Orange Beach Sportsplex Complex
Streaming video: SEC Digital Network
In less than two seasons at Florida, this talented sophomore from Brecksville, Ohio, has not only established herself as a stalwart defender for the Gators, but has shown she can be a threat offensively with her ability to make long runs and precision passes as well as showing a strong and accurate leg on set pieces.
“Growing up I played midfield and forward, so I've played all the different positions,” Westphal said. “I like playing center back because I really enjoy defending, but especially at this school. They allow me to bring the ball up.”
Westphal was a four-year member of the Walsh Jesuit High School team that topped the final 2010 Powerade Fab 50 ESPN National Rankings, and she also was part of the 2011-12 U.S. Under-18 National Team player pool.
She was pressed into duty as a true freshman early last season when then-senior Kathryn Williamson, one of UF's all-time greats who was the 2010 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and a two-time All-American, was sidelined for almost the entire year with a knee injury.
All Westphal did was start every game but the season opener (24 of 25) in 2012 at one of the most important positions in UF's scheme, leading the Gators in minutes played (2,180), an average of 87.2 minutes per game.
She earned SEC All-Freshman, second-team All-SEC and second-team Soccer America Freshman All-America honors while also earning selection to the SEC First-Year Academic Honor Roll.
She has picked up right where she left off, starting all 19 games this season for the sixth-ranked Gators (15-3-1, 9-2) and averaging a team-high 88.9 minutes a game as UF captured its second straight and league-leading 13th overall SEC regular-season championship.
Westphal and fellow center back Karina Gutsche, a junior, have anchored a strong defense that has been the key to the team posting 11 shutouts this season. In addition, the Gators have allowed only one goal during their season-high seven-game winning streak entering today's SEC Tournament quarterfinal matchup between top-seeded Florida and No. 9 seed Arkansas (13-7, 5-6) at 6 p.m.
“Last year was much harder because of Kat (Williamson) going down, because that's who I looked to,” Westphal said. “But she really helped me even when she was off the field, and that made it a lot better.
“This year, with Karina, we kind of knew each other from last year, so she helps me a lot, too. It's really just who I've been playing with that keeps me up to the level I should be at.”
Westphal recently earned her first SEC Defensive Player of the Week honor after notching her first career goal on a 40-yard free kick in Florida's SEC title-clinching, 5-1 road win over Georgia on Oct. 31. That goal came just days after netting her first assist of the season (second of career) in the Gators' 2-0 home win over Texas A&M that put them in position to get a share of the title.
“I like to get forward as a center back, so it's good to finally be a part of the offense,” Westphal said. “After the assist, we were all joking about how the next thing for me was a goal. I didn't expect it to be so sudden, but it was good. I liked it.”
Monday, Westphal was one of three Gators named to the All-SEC first team along with sophomore midfielder Havana Solaun and freshman forward Savannah Jordan.
“I was really excited that she got these awards; I think that's been well-deserved all year,” coach Becky Burleigh said.
“I think she is still really unsung. She is one of the most underrated players in the conference, if not the country. She does so much for us, and not just defensively. I mean, you think of her as a defender because she's one of the last players back, but offensively, she attacks out of the back, and she starts our attack. She is a quality player.”