By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – To build a championship program from the ground up is no easy task. Given the landscape of women’s collegiate soccer in the mid-1990s, Becky Burleigh’s charge was all the more difficult.
When Burleigh was named the first head coach of the University of Florida soccer team in advance of the 1995 season, just two programs in the history of collegiate soccer had ever won the NCAA Championship, which was first contested in 1982.
George Mason had captured the 1985 NCAA Championship. North Carolina had won all the rest. Notre Dame later won in 1995.
When Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley made the decision to add the sport of soccer, it was not merely a symbolic gesture. He expected the program to compete for Southeastern Conference and NCAA Championships and position itself among the nation’s elite teams.
“The program was not built to be in compliance with Title IX,” said Erin Baxter, a member of the school’s first team. “It was built to win.”
The first step in laying a solid foundation involved hiring Burleigh away from Berry (Ga.) College, where she directed her team to two NAIA National Championships during her five-year tenure. While with the Lady Fury, she compiled an 82-23-6 overall record and lost just seven games vs. NAIA opponents over that stretch.
It didn’t take much convincing to bring Burleigh to Gainesville.
“I came to Florida for my interview and by lunch time of the first day, I knew,” Burleigh said. “All of the coaches were pretty young and really energetic. I knew about all the success that everybody had and I knew that it would carry over into our sport. I knew that they would give the same support to soccer that they gave to everything else.”
Baxter had the same impression of Florida and was impressed by Burleigh’s vision for the program. As a 17-year-old, Baxter could have never envisioned what would transpire four years later.
“I really liked Becky on my visit,” Baxter said. “I was pretty bright-eyed at the time, but I definitely bought into what she said and I wanted to be a part of it. I also liked how Florida did it right as far as establishing the program, bringing her in a year early. I knew they were serious about it.”
On paper, the leaders of Florida’s 1998 team – the fourth year of the program - appeared quite different.
Baxter, who was not heavily recruited out of high school, had been with the program since day one and, through hard work, deservedly earned the 1997 SEC Player of the Year distinction. Danielle Fotopolous transferred to the Gators following her sophomore season at SMU and was on her way to finishing her career as the NCAA’s all-time leader in goals (118) and points (284).
Together as co-captains in their senior seasons, they formed the perfect duo to head up the Florida program.
“Danielle and Erin were two of the biggest leaders,” Burleigh said. “Erin was the toughest person I’ve coached and Danielle carried us in terms of our scoring. She had the ability to make everyone on the team feel like the star player. She had a great knack for that and was a great chemistry person.”
Chemistry is a hard thing to define, but when it’s strong, it can give a team an impressive advantage. Whatever other factors may have been in play, it was the team chemistry on Florida’s 1998 team that made the difference.
“There was definitely something special there,” Baxter said. “It was an amazing team and everybody filled their role, whether they were a starter or a sub. There were just so many different dynamics to the people on that team. We all just came together and meshed at the right time.”
Outside of the team’s two captains, the Gators’ roster was an impressive collection of talented players from a variety of backgrounds. The starting goalkeeper was senior Meredith Flaherty, who had transferred to Florida after playing three seasons at Clemson. A freshman forward on that team was Abby Wambach, currently a star on the U.S. National Team. Fellow U.S. National Team member Heather Mitts was a junior defender on that squad.
“It was just a great collection of people in terms of their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the whole,” Burleigh said. “One thing was, we had 12 seniors who were really invested that had started the program. They all had their own role in that. There were a lot of people who started at Florida and their playing time decreased because as they got older, we were able to recruit better and better players. But they still played the role that they did. They were definitely willing to sacrifice individual playing time for team success.”
Fotopolus, the most visible star of that 1998 team, agrees, saying that having a team full of players who each understand and play their roles, no matter how big or small, makes the difference in championship teams.
“That senior class was very special and I think that chemistry and that pride of being Gators really carried us through,” Fotopolous said. “You learn a lot from being on great teams. You see how each individual role is important and how that contributes to the success of the whole.”
From the very start, Florida was preparing itself to be one of the nation’s top soccer programs. Burleigh consistently scheduled the most elite competition to prepare her team to become a national championship contender.
“We tended to be really aggressive,” Burleigh said. “We wanted to play a really hard schedule in hopes that it would get us ready for postseason. It’s kind of a different attitude from trying to gauge what you need to do to get in. We were trying to gauge what would put us in the best situation to win in the postseason. We were very aggressive from the very beginning and we took our share of beatings.”
No team dominated the Gators like the Tar Heels.
Entering the 1998 campaign, North Carolina had beaten Florida four times over the previous three years by a combined score of 18-1. UNC ended UF’s season in both 1996 and 1997 by scores of 9-0 and 5-0, respectively.
But it’s what happened early in the 1998 season that made the Gators begin to believe that they just might have what it took to change the tide of those rivalries.
“When you look through the results of that year, we were starting to beat teams that we hadn’t beaten before,” Burleigh said. “We beat SMU and Texas A&M and some other teams early in that schedule that we hadn’t beaten before and we finally beat them. It just built throughout the year.”
The team’s Oct. 11 matchup with North Carolina in Gainesville proved to be a turning point.
In front of a capacity crowd of 5,222 fans, the Gators dropped a 2-1 overtime decision to the top-ranked Tar Heels. Florida had tied the game at 1-all in the 86th minute with a goal by senior midfielder Melissa Pini that forced the extra period.
The result in the win/loss column may have been the same as Florida’s previous meetings with North Carolina, but the Gators’ play in that match made them realize that this year’s team was different.
“I think we were thinking that we could go further in the postseason than any team at Florida had gone,” Burleigh said. “Midway through the year, we played Carolina and lost 2-1 in a game that we thought we should have won. At that point, we started thinking that we should be thinking about more than just going further than we had in the past.”
Baxter says that the loss to North Carolina was one of the keys to the team’s eventual national title.
“It was definitely a big game because every previous match against them had been pretty lopsided,” Baxter said. “To be able to play them so tough and to go into overtime and come that close, we knew that we were in that game. It was probably a good thing that we didn’t win that game because it just motivated us even more to get to the championship to play them again.”
Florida headed into the 1998 NCAA Tournament with a 21-1 overall record and captured the SEC Tournament Championship.
The Gators earned a first-round bye before defeating James Madison 5-1 in the second round and Northwestern 1-0 in the third round. No victory was easy and, along the way, Florida focused only on the match at hand.
“We definitely took it one game at a time,” Baxter said. “Every game that we played in was pretty close. In our third round vs. Northwestern, it was a 1-0 game, so you couldn’t take any round for granted.”
Each of Florida’s first three matches would be played at home at Percy Beard Stadium and a 3-1 victory against Penn State sent the Gators to their first College Cup in program history.
“We played at home all the way to the Final Four, so we felt really confident playing at home,” Burleigh said. “I do remember [Associate Head Coach] Vic [Campbell] saying ‘When we win this game, we go to the Final Four. When we win this game, let’s act like we’ve been there before.’ I thought that was kind of funny because hadn’t been there before. I think our players just played. They didn’t know what to be scared of; there was such an innocence about that team. At the same time, they were so competitive. Practices were such wars that some of the games seemed easier than the practices.”
The home-field advantage was more than just an edge for Florida’s players. The environment created inside Percy Beard Stadium had few equals.
“I remember those games,” Baxter said. “Home games at Florida were really exciting and I always looked forward to those. We played on an amazing field, first of all, and then you could always count on having a really good fan base there. We played against some really good teams there. Everything was first class.”
Florida left the friendly confines of Percy Beard Stadium to head to Greensboro, N.C., for the 1998 College Cup. The Gators would be playing approximately 50 miles away from the home field of the Tar Heels, who were joined by Portland and Santa Clara, in pursuit of collegiate soccer’s top prize.
UF’s semifinal contest vs. Santa Clara proved to be a defensive war, as Flaherty was rock solid in a complete-game performance in goal with seven saves, including a number of impressive plays late in the match.
A goal by Sarah Yohe ended the Broncos NCAA-record 16-match consecutive shutout streak to give the Gators a 1-0 win. Yohe, who had missed the second and third rounds of the NCAA Tournament with a hip flexor injury, put in the deflection off a Fotopolous shot. Florida would be paired against North Carolina in the title tilt, as the Tar Heels had defeated Portland 1-0 in an epic four-overtime battle.
There weren’t any jitters for the Gators early on in the national championship match as Florida got on the board first less than five-and-a-half minutes into the contest.
Fotopolous was fouled just outside the penalty box and launched a free kick over UNC goalkeeper Siri Mullinix to give Florida the early advantage.
“I was taken down right outside the box,” Fotopolous said. “I know that Kerri [Doran] usually took our free kicks, but I was feeling it and I wanted to take it, so I happened to shoo her off even though that wasn’t the plan. I just kept my eye on it and hit it as hard as I possibly could, knowing where the goal was. Seeing that it went in was pretty amazing. I can say that it was a little bit cloudy and all that stuff you hear, but it was definitely exciting. Becky and Vic kept telling me to ‘take on’ and that’s what I did. I continued to press on and defend.”
Burleigh said the early goal helped Florida’s confidence, but was a bit unnerving because it came so early in the match.
“We scored that goal in the first five minutes, which was kind of scary,” Burleigh said. “I’m sure that goal stunned North Carolina. We had never been ahead of them in the history of our program, but the second thought was obviously, we have 85 minutes left.”
The remainder of the match seemed to last for an eternity for those on the field.
“I just remember her hitting an amazing free kick,” Baxter said. “I remember looking up at the clock and there was 80 something minutes left. That was the longest game of my life.”
Fotopolous felt the same way.
“At times, it felt like it went forever,” Fotopolous said. “The first half went by quick. I think the last eight to 10 minutes felt like 30 minutes because they were all over us. Meredith Flaherty played an amazing game, had great saves, save after save. She was just making saves left and right when they were pounding us.”
Pounding is an appropriate word.
Burleigh recalled how physical the championship match proved to be following the Fotopolous goal.
“It was just a physical battle,” Burleigh said. “I can remember Melissa Pini colliding with one of their players and they both went down hard. There were a lot of fouls, so there wasn’t a lot of rhythm. They definitely had their chances for sure. Meredith in goal was amazing and our defense was amazing. Everybody was playing defense all over the field. We knew we were the underdogs. There was really no pressure. Once we scored, it really put the pressure on UNC. The longer the time ran where they hadn’t scored, I think they got the feeling more and more that it wasn’t going to be their day.”
But it was going to be Florida’s day, Burleigh began to believe following a late media timeout.
“It was like the clock could not go down fast enough,” Burleigh said. “Our TV timeout in the second half took forever. It seemed like the ball was never going to go out. We finally had our second TV timeout with maybe 16-18 minutes left in the game. Once we got to that timeout, I knew we were going to hold on and win it.”
When the clock finally hit 90:00, Burleigh’s team had taken home a national championship just four years after beginning a program. It would be the first soccer title for the SEC and the Gators became just the fourth different team in NCAA history to hoist a trophy in women’s soccer.
“I was very excited,” Fotopolous said. “It had been a goal of mine for a long time not only to win a national championship, but also to beat North Carolina. Achieving both in the same day was a great accomplishment. I always like being the underdog. We had nothing to lose. Everyone thought we were going to lose anyway, so it was up to us. We were very excited not only to get there, but once we were there, we might as well do something. We did have winning a national championship in our minds throughout the season. It was a goal of ours as a team.”
For Baxter, who had been a part of the team since day one, it was a bittersweet moment.
“It was amazing,” she said. “You kind of dream of going out that way. At the same time, I was a little sad because it was my last game. I liked that we had to go through North Carolina to win it. They had established the dynasty. That definitely made it even more special.”
Florida’s victory was paramount on so many levels. It established UF as one of the nation’s premier programs, signaled a beginning to increased parity in the sport of collegiate soccer, and extended a proud tradition of SEC soccer that carries exists today.
In 2011, the SEC placed a league-high eight teams into the NCAA Tournament and the future looks even brighter.
“I thought that was cool for the SEC to even have a team in the Final Four and then for us to win it,” Burleigh said. “It gave us a lot of credibility and the SEC a lot of credibility to have the ability to get there and to win.”