College soccer: FGCU women taking on Florida, No. 1 Florida State at home starting Sunday
The FGCU women's soccer team has faced Florida and Florida State before. But never on its home field.
The Eagles (2-2-0) get to do just that, playing the Gators (0-4-1) at Pickering Field at the FGCU Soccer Complex at 1 p.m. on Sunday. FGCU then faces the No. 1 Seminoles in Fort Myers on Thursday at 7 p.m.
"The opportunity to get them at home is huge for our program," said FGCU's Jim Blankenship, the only coach in school history. "These are rare opportunities and we're excited to bring that kind of soccer to our community and our university. Our support has been phenomenal here, so we're expecting big crowds."
The women played in front of 2,014 fans when they hosted an NCAA first-round match against Auburn in 2014, losing 1-0. Tickets for FGCU home games are $7 for adults, $5 for military or $5 for children 4-12.
"I hope we get as many people out here as possible," said defender Zoey Spitzer, a Gulf Coast High graduate who is a graduate student at FGCU. "We need as many fans as possible to be as loud as possible, intimidate them a little bit. This is our home field and we take pride in it."
FGCU has played the Gators six times, although three have been in the NCAA Tournament. All have been in Gainesville. The Eagles have been outscored 20-1 in those games, scoring a goal in an early-season 3-1 loss in 2013. The two teams last played in the 2019 regular season, with the Gators winning 4-0.
"We're super excited," said Spitzer, who played against the Gators in 2019. "We're ready to continue on with our momentum, work hard as a team, and just make a statement, especially on our home field."
FGCU has only played Florida State once, losing 4-0 in 2008.
"It's definitely exciting to have two of the top teams in our state, and one top team in the nation come here," said defender Syniah Clark, an Ida Baker grad who also is a graduate student. "We get to play them on our home field, use our fans to our advantage. It's good to get us ready for conference. I think it's just an exciting time."
The Eagles come in just 2-2-0 but do so after a 3-2 win at FIU on Wednesday night. They had lost to NCAA Division II Lynn, 2-0, at home on Aug. 26, and were trailing Loyola Chicago 2-0 at home on Sunday before that game was declared no contest due to weather. Their other loss was at defending SEC divisional champion Tennessee, 6-0, in Knoxville. The Vols are ranked 22nd.
"(Wednesday) night was big for our confidence," Blankenship said. "We played well. We're looking forward to the opportunity. We're gaining confidence. We're starting to play well. We're looking forward to just kind of building on that."
Spitzer and Clark are both defenders but stepped up to score goals in the first half against FIU.
"I would say we're relatively new experience-wise because last season wasn't really a season compared to other years," said Spitzer, referring to playing a shortened season and playing in the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. "That (win) was definitely needed. A win was needed to gain some confidence for sure."
"(The win) really helps mentally with our team to have the momentum going forward because these two games are not going to be easy," Clark said.
The season hasn't been easy so far for the Gators either.
Florida lost at Florida State, 5-2, on Thursday night, and comes in winless in coach Tony Amato's first season. Kit Loferski put the Gators up 1-0, but the Seminoles scored the next five goals before Shaye Seyffart, who had been out due to COVID-19-related quarantine, scored in the closing minute. Despite the record, three of the Gators' five opponents have been top-20 teams.
"I think every time out, whether it is practice or a game, we have been taking a step," Amato said. "We're trying to grow in terms of our work rate and figuring out what it takes to win at this level. Obviously, we played the No. 1 team in the nation. There were moments in the game but we have a lot more steps to take before we make up that difference."
Spitzer and Clark know no matter what the Gators' record is that the level of play will be quite different.
"The speed of play is different," Spitzer said. "We definitely have to work harder than playing other teams. We have to make sure we're in the right spots early. We have to make sure we're disciplined.
"It's a lot more physical and it's a lot more mental, all at once."
The Eagles' stretch goes beyond just the Gators and Seminoles. They play at FAU on Sept. 12, then face USF, which is just outside the Top 25, on Sept. 19.
Blankenship is simply looking to get his team the best experience to make the most progress for what really matters.
"We're experienced enough to know that ultimately this is about our conference," he said. "Here in a couple of weeks, we start 0-0 like everybody else in the country once you start league play.
"We enjoy the level the Floridas, Florida States, the UCFs, the South Floridas, the FAUs because they add such an opportunity for us not only in the ability to play at that level, but the experience and we gain the confidence and it carries over into our conference play."
Greg Hardwig is a sports reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter: @NDN_Ghardwig, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism with this special subscription offer at https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/