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Former Gators soccer star is longtime friend and rival of new UF women's soccer coach

Graham Hall
Gator Sports

Florida’s newly hired soccer coach, Samantha Bohon, summed up her initial conversation with the program in her introductory news conference. 

“When the University of Florida calls,” she said, “you answer.”

A similar sentiment can be expressed when it comes to one of the Florida program’s most illustrious competitors and one of Bohon’s longest friends, Danielle Fotopoulos. 

When Danielle has something to say, it’s best to listen, which is exactly what Bohon, 45, was doing in the days leading up to her introduction as the third coach in UF soccer program history. 

Though it’s worth noting Bohon was the first to reach out.

“She actually was calling me, something personal had happened in my life and she was reaching out to me,” Fotopoulos said. “We had about a 45-minute conversation about me, not about her, and she’s like ‘Oh, I have to tell you something,’ and I’m like, ‘Well I have to go, I’m busy,’ and she’s like, ‘I think I’m going to get the UF job,’ and I’m like ‘What?!”

Fotopoulos may have been ecstatic but she wasn’t necessarily shocked.

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Danielle Fotopoulos wanted Gators to hire her friend

Samantha Bohon, who coached Embry-Riddle's women's soccer program for 14 years, was hired Monday by the University of Florida.

She had privately advocated for Bohon’s hiring to UF Athletic Director Scott Stricklin nearly 16 months ago, when coach Becky Burleigh announced her intention to retire following 26 seasons with the UF program. Stricklin ultimately went in a different direction, hiring Tony Amato from Arizona upon the recommendation of a search firm.

Bohon would remain at Embry-Riddle for her 15th year with the program, while Fotopoulos prepared for her 12th season as the head coach of the women’s soccer team at Eckerd College. 

Amato lasted less than one year with the Gators. For Stricklin, Bohon quickly came to mind.

He didn’t want to rush the process, however, regardless of how certain he felt about Bohon’s prowess as a head coach. 

Though Bohon wasn’t going to simply cross her fingers and hope Stricklin had remembered her name — so she picked up the phone and made the first move.

“I was made aware that there was an opening, and then I reached out,” Bohon said. “It was with Lynda Tealer, who I think is just very easy to connect to, and the things that she expressed this program was looking for was what exactly I was doing already.”

She was one of five candidates, and the only woman, to reach out to the Florida program, according to multiple sources close to the hiring process. 

Still, Stricklin intended to conduct a thorough search. He scoured the landscape for coaches interested in taking on the impending Florida rebuild — few shared the combination of Bohon’s professional experience and enthusiasm. Stricklin got the sense she was devoted to success, a sentiment with which Bohon concurs. 

“I am competitive. I’m a little feisty. My family can attest to that. I think I get that from my mom, who was a high school state champion tennis player,” Bohon said. “So the apple does not fall far from the tree.”

Friendship and rivalry goes way back

Samantha Baggett, far right, from her college days at Duke. Now Samantha Bohon, she's the Florida women's soccer coach.

The early days of the relationship between Bohon, ​​née Baggett, and Fotopoulos, née Garrett, were marked by competition. 

The two met in middle school, as teammates on a traveling soccer team. 

“She’s from Orlando, I’m from Daytona Beach Beach, so we grew up close since we were 12,” Bohon recalled. “She played for the Orlando Gators, and I played in Ormond Beach, and then the Orlando Gators asked me to guest play. So I guest-played with Danielle starting when I was 14, and then we played against each other in high school. We won. And then our first years in college, we both guest-played for a (under-19 club) team in Clearwater, and we won two national championships.”

The two soon were separated by state lines, with Fotopoulos headed to Florida and Bohon bound for Duke University, though they wouldn’t have to wait long to meet again on the field. 

On Nov. 3, 1996, less than 18 months from competing together as teammates and several months removed from Fotopoulos’ wedding, in which Bohon was a bridesmaid, Bohon and Fotopoulos found themselves as adversaries in Durham, North Carolina. 

Fotopoulos was quickly developing a reputation as one of the country’s most talented attacking forwards and goal-scorers for a UF program still in its infancy, while Bohon was a force on the Blue Devils’ backline. Something had to give that day. 

In a scoreless contest, Fotopoulos would be the one making the tough tackle that day on Bohon, though it left Fotopoulos feeling devastated by the game’s end. Her play on the ball sent Bohon crashing to the turf with an ankle injury. She watched the rest of the game on crutches from the sideline. 

She may not have won the battle, but Bohon won the war, as Duke claimed a 1-0 victory over the visiting Gators, and she hasn’t let her former teammate forget it. 

“She took me out at the end of the game,” Bohon said. “I left the game with crutches, but we still won.”

Fotopoulos has a slightly different recollection.

“I think she might have put her ankle in the way,” she joked, “and I kicked her.”

They coached in the same conference

With Embry-Riddle and Eckerd both competing in the Sunshine State Conference, the battles continued, with Embry-Riddle claiming victory in eight of 10 matchups in the series history. 

“She’s had my number, for sure. That’s why it’s good that she’s here now,” Fotopoulos said. “She’s just like a sister to me. She is my voice of reason.”

Now in her first week on the job, Bohon turns her attention to developing relationships with the Florida players, as well as building a coaching staff. 

Prior to her introductory news conference, she briefly met with the Gators in the locker room. She’s familiar with the sentiments expressed regarding Amato’s lone season at Florida, and she’s committed to a relationship-oriented approach, one built on constant communication with the administration.

If she hasn’t made it clear yet, Bohon plans to facilitate said communication. Stricklin and Tealer may be well-suited to follow Fotopoulos’ lead and become accustomed to Bohon reaching out. 

“It’s imperative. I told them when I was talking to them, I will err on the side of over-communicating because I know administrators don’t like surprises,” Bohon said. “You’re all a team. It truly is that. So whether it’s sport science, trainers or the mental-health aspect, whatever aspect is trying to come together and support this group, it really has to have a teamlike atmosphere.”

While there are no plans for Fotopoulos to join Bohon at Florida as part of her inaugural coaching staff in Gainesville, she intends to be part of the team in an unofficial capacity. 

“Danielle’s just going to be part of the cheering committee, and we’re going to get some good banter going back and forth,” Bohon said. “I’m going to put her in charge of the alumni weekend because it is certainly going to be fun.”

Florida soccer head coach Becky Burleigh, left, presents senior Danielle Fotopoulos with the ball she netted for the 104th goal of her career in 2018. Fotopoulos set an NCAA record with that goal.

Will Becky Burleigh have a role? 

Becky Burleigh's presence remains a question. She was in attendance for Bohon’s introduction, and her shadow continues to hang over the program.

Less than three months removed from her final game at Florida, Burleigh unretired from coaching, albeit briefly, to serve as the interim head coach of the Orlando Pride in the National Women’s Soccer League.

Burleigh’s been an influence on Bohon since before she was a household name among Florida fans.

“She coached Danielle and I when we were 14 and 15 in the Olympic development program,” Bohon said of Burleigh. “And I coached against her obviously, and we’ve stayed in touch.”

Burleigh, though she may not be returning to the payroll, will be a luxury available at Bohon’s disposal. 

“I think Becky’s going to be available for as much or as little as I want,” she said. “I’m sure she wants to enjoy her kind-of retirement.”

She may not need to make picking Burleigh’s brain a priority — Bohon, like her conversations with Stricklin, had already reached out to Burleigh before she ever imagined herself in the role. 

With Embry-Riddle just a two-hour drive from Gainesville, Bohon honed her craft in Burleigh’s backyard. 

As a result, her approach is very similar. 

“That’s the beauty of this, I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Bohon said. “I used to come here pretty frequently to just pick her brain, because, you know, Division II, you don’t have the resources that you have here. She was always very inviting, and I would come watch sessions and even go to some of the coaching collaboration events that they had. 

“I’m a whole-hearted subscriber to how she likes to do things.”

It’s Bohon’s time to lead the program, and those around her are optimistic the Gators have found a worthy successor for the national championship-winning program Burleigh helped build.

If she needs help along the way, there are numerous worthy candidates willing to lend Bohon an ear — and she isn’t afraid to start the conversation.

“It’s been a little frustrating. I’ve been waiting, and, I think, developing relationships — I was reaching out and developing relationships, and now I don’t have to reach out,” Fotopoulos said. “I just call my friend. We talk all the time, or text, or whatever we need to do. I’m just really super excited for her, her family and for this program. The timing couldn’t be any better.”