PHOTO BY ROB FOLDY

Preseason All-American defenders Caroline Fitzgerald (pictured) and Taylor Bresnahan have Florida coach Amanda O'Leary confident in her defense this spring.

Defenders of the Swamp: Florida's All-American Backfield


If there is one aspect of her team that most excites Florida coach Amanda O'Leary, it's the defense.

Preseason All-Americans Taylor Bresnahan and Caroline Fitzgerald have a lot to do with that.

The two seniors have started almost every game of their career, and they anchor a defense that has consistently been among the best in the nation the past few years. Once again, the Gators will look to their defense to lead the way this season and they'll get their first big test this weekend at the Team USA Spring Premiere event at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

"They just play with so much confidence," O'Leary said. "They just go out, and I don't know, they've got an attitude about them, and it shows out on the field. They are very confident in their abilities. They are very good 1-v-1 defenders but at the same time they are great helping defenders. They see the field really well.

"They are both confident in moving the ball up through the midfield, so if we need them moving the ball in transition, they are both very good at that. When you are a coach and you're looking at what you want in a defender, they have all the characteristics in anyone you would want to be a defender."

Fitzgerald, who has started all 62 games of her career, is the reigning Big East Defender of the Year after leading the Gators with 44 ground balls and adding 18 caused turnovers. Bresnahan, who missed one game as a sophomore, set a single-season program record with 26 caused turnovers last year and added 27 ground balls.

The veteran duo is joined by junior Aniya Flanagan, also a returning starter, and freshman Cara Trombetta, who is coming off a strong fall. Sophomore Haley Hicklen takes over in goal after starting the second half of most games last year to spell Mary-Sean Wilcox.

"It's a really solid unit," O'Leary said. "They are a group that works really well together. They all have very different strengths and weaknesses, and they all complement each other really well. I'm excited about that defensive unit as a whole."

Florida ranked 12th nationally in scoring defense the past two years, allowing 8.0 goals per game in 2015 and 7.45 goals per game last year, and the Gators were 19th in 2014 while surrendering 8.43 goals per game.

"I think all of us are just aggressive, no matter if it's like going for a groundball or straight-up 1-v-1," Bresnahan said. "I think that sets us apart from a lot of teams in the nation because it's not just one player that's aggressive, it's our whole defense as a core."

Both Bresnahan and Fitzgerald said they look forward to a chance to finish what they started last year while the Gators cruised through their best season only to fall as the No. 2 seed in their first game of the NCAA tournament in overtime to Penn State. They finished 18-2 with the only other loss coming against Maryland during the regular season.

This weekend is the first big step toward what they hope results in the program's first national championship.

"The U.S. Team is the best of the best, so they are going to be challenging us all over the field," Fitzgerald said. "As defenders, one of our main focus is getting the ball through their ride, so we're going to focus on that, and that's going to make us better when we have to clear against UNC in a month or whoever else we play."


"They've got an attitude about them."









Standout Sophomores

Attacker Lindsey Ronbeck and midfielder Sydney Pirreca both enjoyed breakout freshmen seasons last year in helping replace some of the production lost with the graduation of Team USA midfielder Shannon Gilroy. However, O'Leary expects an even greater impact this year.

Ronbeck was named the 2016 Big East Freshman of the Year after ranking second on the team in assists (16) and third in goals (36) and points (52). Pirreca was fifth in points (29) and goals (25) and also added 23 ground balls. Both started all 20 games.

"We gave them free reign as freshmen and they stepped into those positions and handled themselves very well," O'Leary said. "With a year under their belt, they have a little more confidence in their respective positions, and I'm excited to see them."

New Full-Time Role

Haley Hicklen played in 18 games in the cage for the Gators last year as a freshman, starting the second half in nearly every game, but this year, she takes over full-time to replace Mary-Sean Wilcox.

She turned in a .559 save percentage and went 1-1 with her first victory coming against Georgetown in the Big East Tournament.

"Haley is very sound in regards to her abilities and the little details are the things we're working out right now, but I feel really confident with her," O'Leary said. "She has a great stick, great hands and I think overall we are really pleased with what we did in the fall and I'm looking forward to seeing what she does in that full-time position."

Off The Draw

The Gators haven't been the same on the draw since Shannon Gilroy graduated, and they'll get a reminder of that void still waiting to be filled when they see Gilroy across the field. In Gilroy's senior season in 2015, Florida ranked 11th in draw controls (14.48 per game) but they were tied for 58th last year with just 11.05 draw controls per game.

O'Leary said that continues to be a point of emphasis, but a few different players have shown capable, each with their own technique and strengths, including Taylor Bresnahan, senior Mollie Stevens and junior Allie Pavinelli.

Filling Holes On Offense

With the loss of midfielder Nicole Graziano, who led the team with 44 goals, the Gators will be looking for more from their attackers this season, in particular junior Shayna Pirreca. In her first season as a regular starter, Shayna Pirreca was fourth in goals (31) but tied for first in assists (17), but O'Leary said Pirreca is someone the Gators are "going to rely on a little bit more this year."

O'Leary also is anxious to see freshman Brianna Harris play. Harris was injured coming into the fall and didn't play much but has impressed the coaching staff since returning from Christmas break.

The Gators return five of their eight double-digit scorers, led by senior Sammi Burgess, who had 41 goals, and O'Leary believes their run-and-gun style will favor them with the new 90-second shot-clock rule to be implemented this season.

High Expectations

In a lot of ways, Florida surpassed expectations last year, but that has just raised the bar for 2017.

Eight returning starters were a part of the Gators' 19-8 exhibition loss to Team USA last year, and the team is hoping for some better results this year to serve as a building block for the season. O'Leary said she feels good about where her team is at this point.

"Their team chemistry is absolutely outstanding ... and their work ethic is second to none," O'Leary said. "I'm expecting great things, and I think they expect the same. With those expectations being where they are, they are going to work hard and play hard and we'll play the season as we play it, but I think this group is a special group."




PHOTO BY ROB FOLDY

Florida sophomore midfielder Sydney Pirreca scored 25 goals as a freshman in 2016.


By The Numbers

4

Games won by a single goal before the Gators were upset by Penn State, 14-13 in overtime, in the second round of the NCAA tournament after earning a bye as the No. 2 seed.

6

Conference titles won and NCAA appearances made in the program's seven seasons, including four quarterfinal trips and one final four in 2012.

7

Newcomers join the team, including attackers Madisyn Kittell, Jordan Stevens, Bridget Knowles, midfielders Lexi Bolton and Brianna Harris, defender Cara Trombetta and goalie Kenzii Kittell. 

13.35

Goals per game last year. Despite losing the production of Shannon Gilroy's 98 goals in 2015, the Gators still ranked ninth in scoring offense with a more balanced attack. (Florida ranked third nationally with 15.52 goals per game in 2015.)

51

Wins collected by the decorated senior class of Sammi Burgess, Caroline Fitzgerald, Taylor Bresnahan, Mollie Stevens, Alex Puller, Carli Marsh and Chloe O'Haire since the 2014 season.