By Jim Nasella
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Jacksonville University women’s soccer coach Brian Copham looks a little tired this week and he has a couple of dark circles under his eyes.
And why not?
His team is continuing its journey Saturday in the first round of the NCAA tournament by meeting sixth-ranked Florida at James G. Pressly Stadium on the UF campus. Game time is 2 p.m.
Coming off a 5-3 penalty kick advancement over Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun tournament championship game last week, Copham has had a few more media requests, watched a little more film and seen his excitement level shoot skyward as the Dolphins (12-7-1 overall and 6-3 in the A-Sun) make their first NCAA appearance since 2006.
“It hasn’t been a trying week,’’ the sixth-year head coach said between studying more film of the Gators (17-4-1, 9-2 in the Southeastern Conference). It’s just excitement and there are probably some nerves that come with that but I’m excited about the opportunity.’’
And not only for himself.
Copham has been to the big event twice as an assistant at Samford (in 2005 and 2007). Therefore, much of his anticipation is for what his team is experiencing.
“Obviously, it’s a little different being head coach now, but I’m excited for them to get to see it,’’ he said. “I’ve seen the (tournament) selection show before and been a part of this process and now they get the opportunity to feel it. This game and winning the A-Sun championship are something they’ll talk about and remember forever.’’
While the coach likes that his players are able to experience the highest level of play, he senses they were wooed by something different in the A-Sun title game.
“They’re probably more excited about the jewelry that comes with the championship, getting the conference ring,’’ he said. “I think that may have been some of their motivation. Before that game I told them if you need me to motivate you before this game you need to check your pulse.’’
Before the FGCU game, assistant coach Kate Legidakes showed the team her championship ring from the 2006 team, her sophomore year, and that seemed to really raise eyebrows.
“Kate explained to them that the ring symbolized what that day was about and what the process has been about,’’ Copham said.
Rings secured, it’s time for the next level.
In the Gators, JU is facing the region’s second-seed behind Virginia Tech and a team making its 17th NCAA championship appearance. All of those appearances have come under Coach Becky Burleigh, the only coach UF has ever had (19 seasons).
“I have a ton of respect for them,’’ Copham said. “Their coaching staff is a phenomenal staff and Becky has won a national championship there and they always are a top tier in the country. Their assistants do a great job and overall they do a great job. It’s going to definitely be a tough challenge for us.’’
Copham said despite the challenges the Gators provide, he would like the Dolphins to “hold true to ourselves. The thing we talk about is we worry about ourselves. We do scouting and preparing for opponents but it’s about us. I want to be worried about how we play and how we do the things we try to do and control the controllable. It’s hard to do against a team that is athletic and deep as Florida is.’’
Burleigh isn’t looking at the Dolphins as a pushover.
“Jacksonville is a team with some similarities to us. We respect what Brian has done with the Jacksonville program and we know we will need to be prepared,” she told Gatorzone.com this week.
Florida posted a 10-2-0 record on its home field this season, and provides a number of matchups that Jacksonville will have to counter effectively in order to advance. Freshman Savannah Jordan is tied for the most goals scored in the nation this season, having put 22 in the back of the net in 22 matches. Midfielder Havana Solaun leads the team with nine assists and has scored eight times herself. A total of eight Gators have scored multiple goals in 2013.
“This is our biggest challenge, it’s going to be a really good matchup,’’ goalkeeper Sarah Sierra said. “If we play with the right mindset and play like we know how to, we have a good chance to beat them. I’m just looking forward to it.’’
“We need to have a fantastic defensive effort from the entire team, not just the backs and goal keeper,’’ Copham said. “And, we have to take advantage of whatever chances we get. We can’t waste chances to score goals because there may not be a lot of those.’’