The Florida women’s soccer team again kicks off the athletic year when the seventh-ranked Gators host the Washington Huskies at Donald R. Dizney Stadium tonight at 7.
Coach Becky Burleigh, who started the program and won the NCAA title in its fourth year in 1998, led UF to a 17-7 mark in 2017, reaching the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
“It’s a huge weekend,” Burleigh said. “It’s always fun to kick off the athletic season because Florida has such a tradition in all their sports, and to be the ones that kick it off, we’re always in that position. We really relish that because it sort of gets the year going.”
There are 30 names on this year’s roster, including 10 starters from last year’s team.
Three of those starters earned All-SEC honors — redshirt junior midfielder Parker Roberts (first team), sophomore forward Deanne Rose (first team) and senior defender Rachelle Smith (second team).
“I’ve noticed the energy is a little different in a positive way,” Roberts said. “I think we all kind of realized it, and there’s something really different about this season. We’re really anxious to get started. We already have a win under our belt (a 4-0 exhibition win over Florida Gulf Coast last week), which is good and it gives us confidence going into the regular season. We have really good chemistry and the energy has just been amazing.”
Florida is one of four SEC teams in the preseason rankings, joining No. 5 South Carolina, No. 11 Texas A&M and No. 25 Tennessee.
UF plays its first three matches at home. After tonight, the Gators host FAU at 6 p.m. Sunday before lining up against Ohio State next Friday night at 7. Their first road match will be at Oklahoma State on Aug. 26.
The Gators will play all of their home matches at fan-friendly Dizney Stadium for the first time.
“We’re really excited about that,” junior midfielder Sammie Betters said. “It’s really cool this year because we have sort of an old team so we didn’t really have to go into the basics during preseason. We got to jump straight in, so I think we’re really prepared. We’re ready to go and we want to play.”
In a preseason vote of the league’s coaches, UF was picked to finish first in this year’s SEC race.
The Gators have won or shared the SEC title 14 times under Burleigh, who brings an all-time record of 489-133-38 into the season that includes a 407-110-32 mark over the past 23 years after coaching the first five years at NAIA Berry College in Rome, Georgia.
She ranks among the top five all-time NCAA Division I active coaches in both wins and winning percentage (.770).
“We’re really excited,” senior goalkeeper Kaylan Marckese said. “Preseason has gone really well for us. We’re getting along really well and working really hard. Everybody is really putting in a lot of work for each other, which is a little different than past years’ teams. We feel really connected, and that’s really exciting.”
Who: Washington vs. No. 7 Florida
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Donald R. Dizney Stadium
Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM
Admission: Free for all Gator regular-season home games
Promotion: First 250 fans receive a free T-shirt