Nov. 27, 2003
Lake City, FL - It couldn't be more perfect. On a day when the sixth-ranked Seminole soccer team (16-7-1) has a chance to go to a place they have never been before, namely the College Cup, they face a team that was there when the program took its first step to national respectability.
It was August 25, 2000 and the Seminoles were hosting No. 6 Florida on opening night. The Gators were just a year removed from a national championship and FSU was 0-5 all-time versus UF. The Tribe had just recorded their first-ever goal against the Gators in a 5-1 loss the year before. Just 20 games into head coach Patrick Baker's rebuilding project he saw his team comeback from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits to record the program's first ever win over the Gators in a season that saw Florida State go on to not only make the NCAA Tournament for the first time but eventually end up in the Sweet 16.
"They were No. 6 in the preseason polls and just a year removed from the National Championship and we beat them on opening night," said Baker. "From that point on our program has not looked back. That game was one of the defining moments. When you look back on things that changed the complexion of this program, that win was one of them."
A win over third-seeded Florida (19-3-2) Friday night at 6:00 p.m. would be another defining moment for a coach and a program that has redefined itself over the last four seasons. From just one winning season in its first four years, Baker has lifted Florida State to four straight NCAA Tournaments, three Sweet 16's, two ACC Championship Finals and now the school's first ever NCAA quarterfinal.
"I am in awe how far this program has come and I cherish every moment along the way," said senior Amber Tollefson. "We have closed the gap so much and I think that showed in the way we played in the ACC Championship versus North Carolina. We have taken huge leaps and being in the Elite Eight is a huge step for us.
"It is so special to be a part of the turnaround but it was in no way an individual effort. To be a part of something that ignited in 2000 is so special to me. The standard has been raised each and every year. Things have got progressively better every season."
Five games into 2003, it is hard to imagine this season was going to be progressively better than the previous three. The Seminoles, a consensus top 15 preseason pick, stumbled out of the gate to a 1-4 start. They had lost to four teams that eventually made the 2003 NCAA Tournament and three of which were in the Sweet 16. After a 3-1 loss to Kansas in Lawrence, Baker said the season hit rock bottom.
"This team has been on a mission ever since our loss to Kansas and we fell to 1-4," he said. "You have the entire ACC schedule ahead of you and every game is just uphill, uphill. There is no margin for error. We have had that mentality ever since San Diego State in the middle of September.
"We've had some breaks but you also have to be good and capitalize on chances. Earlier in the year we lost to some very good teams but we weren't playing like us. We were in a different system and ever since we changed we have been able to play, compete and win against some of the best teams in the country. That has really been exciting."
One of the teams that helped FSU start off 0-3 and eventually 1-4 was Florida. The Gators had lost three of the last four games versus the Seminoles before the Tribe traveled to Gainesville. The Seminoles were fresh off back-to-back losses to nationally ranked Southern Cal and Penn State while Florida beat both of those squads. The team's fortunes' had reversed as FSU plummeted out of the polls and Florida found itself climbing from not ranked into the Top 10.
"We realize we will be playing a very talented Florida team that beat us 2-0 earlier but I can't think of another place we'd rather be," said Baker. "To play them again with the right to go to the College Cup is amazing. After we played the game in Gainesville, they were 3-0 and a Top 10 team. We were 0-3 and had promptly fallen out of every national poll. Just to see how far we have come since that time is a credit to these young ladies."
"We came out of the gates really slow. We changed some things but the biggest change was our mentality," said Tollefson. "We have never looked back since then. Things have changed and we are a different team now. Hopefully we learned from that first game."
In that September 5 meeting FSU held the advantage in shots, shots on goal, corners and forced UF keeper Brittni Goodwin into twice as many saves as FSU's keepers had to make. Despite all that the Gators won 2-0 and increased their lead in the all-time series to 7-3.
"Last time we played, they dominated all over the field," said All-ACC striker Leah Gallegos. "That has given us some motivation this time around. We need to play better."
If history is any indication the Tribe will play better this time. This will be the fourth time Florida State is going to play a team for the second time this season. Three of four of those rematches have come against the only three teams that shutout FSU during the regular season. Each time the Seminoles have not only scored two goals the second time around, they have preformed better.
After playing Wake Forest to a 0-0 tie over 110 minutes in the regular season, FSU beat the Demon Deacons 2-1 in the ACC Tournament. The next team to shut out Florida State was No. 1 North Carolina in a 1-0 loss. The teams then met again in the ACC Championship final where FSU not only scored two goals, they led Carolina on two occasions before falling 3-2.
"I think you can't take too much from the first time we played (Florida). We are in a different system now and are basically a different team than we were the first five games of the season," said Jez Ratliff. "They shut us out, which is something a lot of teams haven't been able to do. Carolina and Wake Forest are the other two teams that shut us out. We have played both of those teams since then and scored two goals against each the second time around. That will be motivation for us as an offense because we aren't used to being held without a goal."
"It shows that we have responded when we have played a team for the second time," said Gallegos. "Hopefully that trend continues Friday night. It will take all of us playing at the highest level to win this game."
The last time Florida and Florida State faced off the Tribe was allowing an average of two goals a game and was scoring less than a goal a game themselves. The Gators will see an FSU defense unlike the group they faced in September. This current back four has set team records for shutouts in a season, consecutive shutouts, consecutive shutouts in ACC play, consecutive minutes without allowing a goal and consecutive minutes without allowing a goal in ACC play. They will need to be at their best against an athletic Florida team that is capable of running past a defense and attacking from anywhere on the field.
"I think this defense compared to the one earlier in the season is more balanced," said freshman sensation and center back Kelly Rowland. "We are more in sync with one another and our communication is so good right now. That should help us better contain (Crystal) Frimpong and (Robyn) Fulton.
"They are both so athletic and have great pace. Fast players are always hard to deal with but especially up top. It is going to be a challenge. We have seen great forwards this year on other teams so that will prepare us for a player of the caliber they have. We will be ready"
Playing against great players and great teams is something the Seminoles will be drawing on going into Gainesville Friday night. Counting Friday night's game, 13 of Florida State's last 16 games have come against teams that went to the NCAA Tournament. The Seminoles played the most games against teams in the Elite Eight, the second most games versus teams in the NCAA Tournament and played more ranked teams than any school in the nation this year. They play in a conference that sent seven of its eight teams to the NCAA's and they dropped two one-goal decisions to consensus No. 1 North Carolina within nine days. On top of that they have faced seven Hermann Award semifinalists and FSU has played in a game with a Hermann semifinalist 10 times this year.
"Playing in the ACC just helps so much. You don't realize it but you are forced to compete against a team that plays the game at such a higher level game in and game out," said Baker. "That just says so much about our entire conference. Seven of our eight schools made the tournament. Playing North Carolina twice in just over one week made us a better team. It had nothing to do with our results but just playing them. Playing at their speed, playing a team with that technical ability, trying to solve their tactical savvy, that is what you want. We have another big challenge in front of us with Florida."
Another positive omen for Florida State is the fact that they are 5-0-0 all-time against SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament. The Tribe has beaten one SEC team every year they have been in the NCAA's and that includes a double overtime win over Auburn in the round of 32 just a few weeks ago but when it comes down to it, Florida State versus Florida is bigger than any trend or stat. In the shadow of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and just a day before the two school's football teams meet, the two soccer teams will add another chapter to the great rivalry between the schools separated by less than 200 miles.
"Anytime we play Florida it is a huge game," said Ratliff. "To play them at this level of the NCAA Tournament is amazing. You can't ask for a better rivalry or match-up with the College Cup on the line."
Adding to the rivalry is the last memory the Gators have of an NCAA game versus their rivals from the north. In 2000, the first time FSU ever made the NCAA Tournament, the Seminoles eliminated the Gators from the NCAA Tournament in Gainesville 2-1. It was FSU's second win over UF that season and even though that meeting took place in 2000, the seniors on both teams remember that game.
"We have made runs at different times. In 2000 we ended Florida's season in the NCAA Tournament," said Baker. "In 2001, we were hoping we would get a chance to play them but Clemson beat us in the second round and they traveled to Gainesville for the Sweet 16. Florida then went on to the Final Four. Last year they didn't get into the tournament and we went to the Sweet 16. Now both teams are having great years, theses are two very good teams and there is plenty at stake. Anything is possible."
"I remember that game vividly," said Tollefson. "It was a big day for this program. That is a tough environment to win in. It is an atmosphere we have seen before though."
Winning in Gainesville has been a huge challenge for FSU. The only time they have ever won at Percy Beard was in the 2000 NCAA Tournament. The crowd could set a record, which means FSU will have to face a great Florida team and over 4,500 Gator fans. The two teams have never played one another in front of less than 1,000 fans but they never met on a stage this big either. The average crowd in the series is over 2,200 and three of UF's four all-time crowds and four of FSU's 10 all-time crowds have come in this series.
"You have to be prepared for anything when you go on the road. Being mentally prepared is so important," said freshman Julia Schnugg. You are out of your comfort zone and you have to be able to adapt to that and that is especially crucial in the NCAA Tournament.
"It will help that everyone on this team has played at their stadium before. We are a little more confident now than we were. We believe in ourselves since we are coming off a 15-3-1 stretch rather than being 0-2 the last time we played them."
The Seminoles will also be helped by playing in front of 3,687 pro-Tar Heel fans in the ACC Championship Final just over three weeks ago. That was the largest crowd these current Seminoles have ever played in front of but it was just a year before this senior class arrived when FSU took the field in Gainesville in front of over 4,700 in 1999.
"We played in front of a large pro-Carolina crowd in the ACC final so we have been there and that is good. The fact that this is an NCAA Tournament game means it will be a little more neutral than it was back in September but the crowd will be great and loud," said Baker. "That is the environment you want to be in. I am going to tell our players tomorrow to look around. This is why you come to either Florida or Florida State. This is where the rivalry has gotten to as far as women's soccer. It demands this type of attention from fans and on the national scene. They have been the benchmark for so long in the state and we are just happy to be mentioned in the same sentence as them."
"There is pressure there but this is what we came to Florida State for," said Rowland. "We wanted to get to this point. Our goal is 90 minutes away and we just need to grab hold of the opportunity."
Both teams will also have to face the challenge of not losing their focus with just 90 minutes separating one team or another from a trip to the College Cup. The task will probably be a little more difficult for the Seminoles who have never been to a final four compared to UF, which was at the College Cup in 2001.
"It is hard not to think about being one game away from the College Cup. Instead of making it into a pressure-packed situation we try to look at it as a positive," said Schnugg. "We have come a long way and we want to take that next step. Everyone on this team believes we can be successful."
"It is one in the same. Just take care of business," said Baker. "We need to play well. Somehow limit their personality player's effectiveness in the game. We need to continue to create good scoring opportunities and somehow come away with the right to advance to the College Cup. They have a large number of seniors who I am sure are just as determined to get back to the College Cup. It should be a great game."
Florida State's first ever Elite Eight match will kick off at 6:00 p.m. Live stats and a live audio broadcast will be provided by the University of Florida. Links to both can be found at the official athletic website for the Florida State Department of Athletics at www.seminoles.com.