TWO BITS: Florida soccer advances to Elite Eight; Gators volleyball captures 21st SEC title

1 » No. 10 Florida Gators soccer on Sunday advanced to the Elite Eight of the 2014 NCAA Tournament after taking down the No. 16 Texas Tech Red Raiders 3-2 at Donald R. Dizney Stadium in Gainesville, Florida. The Gators may have fallen short of winning their league crown, but Florida is making a significant effort in NCAA play, moving on to the quarterfinals for the fifth time in program history and first since 2003. UF got on the board first with senior midfielder Havana Solaun striking the ball from 20 yards out; it deflected off the goalkeeper’s outstretched hand, and then the post, before finding the back of the net and putting the Gators up 1-0 at 14′. Florida went ahead 2-0 at 21′ after scoring on a glancing header by sophomore forward Savannah Jordan, which came off a free kick from senior MF Annie Speese. Texas Tech fought back with consecutive goals at 37′ and 64′ to tie thing sup, but Speese notched the game-winning goal at 81′ to send UF forward in the postseason.

The Gators will travel out west to continue their trek toward the NCAA title as Florida will next take on the Stanford Cardinal on Friday at 10 p.m. in Palo Alto, California.

2 » It was an eventful week for No. 6 Gators volleyball, which captured the outright 2014 Southeastern Conference Championship on Friday with a 3-1 win against the Ole Miss Rebels in Oxford, Mississippi. The SEC regular-season title is Florida’s second in the last three years and 21st in the last 24 seasons (1991-2008, 2010, 2012), all of which have come under head coach Mary Wise. On Sunday, the Gators won their 18th-straight match of the season, taking down the Arkansas Razorbacks in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Florida has its longest winning streak since 2010 and will play its final games of the regular season on Wednesday vs. South Carolina and Saturday at Texas.

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Three-peat thwarted: Stanford upsets Florida women’s tennis 4-3 in NCAA Tournament semifinal

No. 1 Florida Gators women’s tennis entered the 2013 NCAA Tournament hoping to achieve the second national championship three-peat in school history. Instead, Florida was dealt a stinging 4-3 defeat by the No. 12 Stanford Cardinal in the semifinals of the event, sending the Gators home from Champaign, IL a day early.

Stanford, the last team to beat Florida in NCAA play when it topped UF for the 2010 national title, snapped the Gators’ 16-match NCAA Tournament winning streak on Monday by outworking the favorites in doubles play and singles action. UF was participating in its fourth-straight NCAA Tournament semifinal and looking to advance to the event’s finals for the fourth consecutive season.

Florida’s year-long struggles in doubles were a factor as the teams of No. 11 senior Lauren Embree/junior Sofie Oyen and junior Alex Cercone/senior Caroline Hitimana both dropped their matches 8-3. It was the 10th time this season that the Gators lost the doubles point and faced an early 1-0 deficit.

The Cardinal, which fell to UF 4-2 in Gainesville, FL on Feb. 24, also won the doubles point that day, but the home team came back and won four singles matches.

Florida (26-3) and Stanford (21-4) split the first sets, but the Cardinal quickly increased their lead substantially by pulling off two relatively easy singles victories.

Continue Reading » Three-peat thwarted: Stanford upsets Florida women’s tennis 4-3 in NCAA Tournament semifinal

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FOUR BITS: track titles, baseball, tennis, lacrosse

1 » Though it did not have the same team success that the swimming program did over the weekend, Florida Gators track & field still put together an impressive overall performance at the 2013 Southeastern Conference Championships. Florida’s men (117.00) finished second and the women (87.50) came in fourth to Arkansas, which won both titles (152.50, 114.50). The Gators captured six individual SEC titles overall.

2013 SEC Individual Titles (6)

» Men’s 60-meter hurdles – Eddie Lovett (7.54 seconds)* [third-straight]
» Men’s long jump – Marquis Dendy (8.25m/27-0.75)* [back-to-back]
» Men’s weight throw – David Triassi (21.59m/70-10)
» Men’s 800 meters – Sean Obinwa (1:48.40)
» Women’s mile – Cory McGee (4:35,33) [second in three years]
» Women’s distance medley relay – Mandy Perkins, Amani Bryant, Agata Strausa, Cory McGee (11:13.45)

2 » Florida baseball (3-5) got swept right out of the top 25 over the weekend as the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (5-1) outscored their hosts 23-9 over three games from Friday-Sunday. The Gators have now lost four-straight games, and their schedule does not get easier going forward. Florida is set to face Miami in a three-game series Friday-Sunday and opens up SEC play on March 15. Seven league teams are currently ranked including Arkansas (2), Vanderbilt (3), LSU (4), South Carolina (8), Mississippi State (13), Kentucky (15) and Ole Miss (17).

3 » On Sunday at Linder Stadium at Ring Tennis Complex in front of a crowd of 1,033, the second-largest in program history, No. 4 Gators women’s tennis came from behind to defeat the No. 13 Stanford Cardinal 4-2. Florida (6-1) and Stanford (4-2) have split the last four meetings between the programs in NCAA play with the Gators earning the home victory after losing the doubles point. Florida knotted the match at 1-1 when junior Olivia Janowicz won her contest 6-2, 6-2 but soon fell behind 1-2 as No. 33 Ellen Tsay took down freshman No. 44 Danielle Collins by the same score. UF jumped back on top 2-1 when junior No. 9 Sofie Oyen beat No. 68 Kristie Ahn 6-2, 6-2 and took a 3-1 lead as junior No. 116 Alex Cercone upset No. 10 Krista Hardebeck 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. The remaining showdowns went back-and-forth but it was eventually freshman Brianna Morgan who won her second match point against No. 98 Stacy Tan to earn a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory and deliver a big win for the Gators.

4 » No. 3 Florida lacrosse (6-0) remained undefeated after earning a 17-7 victory over the Albany Great Danes (0-1) on Sunday. The Gators jumped 3-0 in the early going and held a 12-3 lead at the half, cruising in the second half for the double-digit win. Sophomore Shannon Gilroy led the way with five goals on six shots. senior Ashley Bruns (four) and senior Kitty Cullen (three) combined for seven of the other 10 goals. Florida’s next opponent is No. 6 Syracuse, the team that won a controversial overtime match over UF in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. The schools will go head-to-head in Miami Gardens, FL on Saturday.

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FOUR BITS: soccer, volleyball, Raymond, Starks

1 » Coming off a terrific weekend where they managed a draw and victory over a pair of ranked opponents, No. 22 Florida Gators soccer was feeling the momentum heading into a showdown with the No. 1 Florida State Seminoles on Friday. FSU (3-0) put that sense to rest quickly, scoring 10 minutes into the match via a header off a throw-in and holding off Florida for the remainder of the contest (despite UF finding a number of scoring opportunities) to earn a hard-fought 1-0 victory. The Gators got a measure of revenge Sunday by dominating the Florida International Panthers in their first home match in more than two weeks. Florida (2-2-1) won 3-0 over FIU (2-2) thanks to a pair of goals from sophomore midfielder Havana Solaun (13’, 58’) and another from redshirt senior forward McKenzie Barney at 27’. UF has a light weekend ahead, hosting New Mexico on Sunday at 1 p.m. before beginning their league slate next week.

2 » No. 18 Gators volleyball also faced some stiff competition over the weekend while up in University Park, PA competing in the Nike Big Four Classic. Florida (3-2) was swept 3-0 by the No. 2 Texas Longhorns (5-0) on Friday and fell 3-1 to the No. 9 Stanford Cardinal (3-2) on Saturday. Freshman outside hitter Ziva Recek stood out in a big way against Texas, recording 22 kills which “marks the best 3-set hitting performance by a freshman in Florida history and ties her for third-best in a 3-set match in program history,” according to the school. She continued her dominance on Saturday with 15 more kills in the four-set match. Junior middle back Chloe Mann combined for 29 kills over the two games. UF will now remain home for its next four matches as it plays the Slovenian Junior National Team in an exhibition game Monday before hosting the Active Ankle Challenge (in which they will play three games) from Sept. 7-8.

3 » Coming off an Olympic bronze medal in mixed doubles, former Gators tennis star Lisa Raymond hoped to keep the magic going while competing in the US Open, the major in which she has found the most career success, over the weekend. Unfortunately Raymond, as part of the No. 2-ranked mixed doubles pairing with fellow American Mike Bryan, fell to Brazil in first-round action and was eliminated from the tournament. She and partner Liezel Huber, the No. 1-ranked women’s doubles duo in the world, did advance to the third round of that tournament but lost to the No. 16-ranked team from Spain 6-4, 2-6, 6-4. Raymond has won 13 career grand slam titles, five of which (three women’s doubles, two mixed doubles) have come at the US Open.

4 » Former Florida offensive lineman Max Starks, coming off a pair of injuries in as many seasons, has twice now been tossed to the scrap heap by the Pittsburgh Steelers only to be brought back as a major contributor. After signing a four-year, $26.3 million contract in the 2009 offseason, Starks was cut in July of 2011 after neck problems and weight issues gave the team cause for concern. Pittsburgh wound up re-signing him after injuries plagued their offensive line, and Starks started at left tackle for the rest of the season. He then tore his anterior cruciate in the Steelers’ playoff loss and did not have his one-year contract renewed. However, just like last season, Pittsburgh brought him back (this time in July) on a one-year deal. The team announced this weekend that Starks will be their starting left tackle on opening day. “There was no way I was thinking when I get healthy they’ll re-sign me,” Starks told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I wanted to get healthy and figured teams will be out there, and, if I have to wait through training camp and into the season like last year, I’ll do that, prepare for that. It just so happens, there was an opportunity to come back. It was a blessing.”

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SIX BITS: tennis and lacrosse fall, Junior Day ahead, McCarney doing OK, softball rising

1 » After only giving up two points in their first five matches this season (both to No. 5 Baylor), No. 1 Florida Gators women’s tennis (5-1) was rocked Sunday by the No. 2 Stanford Cardinal (4-0) 5-2 at the Taube Tennis Center in Stanford, CA. Florida, which ended Stanford’s 184-match home winning streak while winning the 2011 NCAA Championship a year ago, had its own 26-match winning streak broken on Sunday. The Cardinal swept the Gators in doubles competition with No. 1 duo Mallory Burdette and Nicole Gibbs thrashing sophomore Alexandra Cercone and junior Allie Will 8-3. Stacey Tan and Ellen Tsay beat junior Lauren Embree and sophomore Sofie Oyen 8-3 as well. Will (3) got a form of redemption in singles action, beating Gibbs (5) 6-4, 2-6, 6-4. Burdette (1), looking for revenge of her own after being beaten for the title one year ago, got just that on Embree (25) by taking her down 6-1, 6-2 in straight sets. Oyen (34) was the only other ranked Florida player to win her match by defeating Ellen Tsay (31) as senior Joanna Mather (4) and Cercone (41) both fell in singles action. UF will play two more non-conference matches before heading into SEC competition.

2 » Suffering a similarly tough loss over the weekend, No. 4 Gators lacrosse (0-1) fell on the road against the No. 3 North Carolina Tar Heels (1-0), fighting back from a 7-3 halftime deficit to lose 11-9. Florida took an early 2-0 lead on North Carolina, but the Tar Heels then outscored the Gators 7-1 to end the opening half. Pairs of consecutive goals by junior attackers Ashley Bruns and Kitty Cullen reduced UF’s deficit but even Florida winning the scoring battle 4-1 over the final 12:07 was not enough to put away North Carolina. Bruns and Cullen finished with three goals apiece, but junior goal keeper Mikey Meagher only notched two saves on the afternoon. Midfielder Kara Cannizzaro led UNC with four goals on six shots, and GK Lauren Maksym was stingy in the net, saving 10 goals while only allowing nine. After losing to the Tar Heels in the season opener last year, the Gators exploded on a 14-match winning streak.

3 » Florida will be holding its second Junior Day of the 2013 recruiting cycle on Saturday and is set to host a number of the country’s top prospects, many of whom are strongly considering playing for the Gators after their respective senior seasons. Among them are a trio of four-stars from Lincoln High School in Tallahassee, FL – linebacker James Hearns (No. 157) and wide receivers Reggie Davis (No. 118) and Taj Williams (No. 177). Hearns committed to Florida on Feb. 2, becoming the Gators’ fourth pledge of the cycle. Davis and Williams also have offers from UF but neither has committed yet; the former will be going on his second visit to Gainesville, FL this month while the latter has expressed on Twitter that he hopes to play for the orange and blue down the line. Other big-time recruits expected to be on campus Saturday are five-star offensive lineman No. 3 Laremy Tunsil (Lake City, FL) and four-stars LB commit No. 53 Daniel McMillian (Jacksonville, FL), defensive tackle commit No. 82 Caleb Brantley (Crescent City, FL), defensive back No. 39 Marcell Harris (Orlando, FL), WR No. 45 Stacy Coley (Oakland Park, FL), four-star running back No. 90 Ryan Green (St. Petersburg, FL), DB No. 94 Nick Washington (Jacksonville, FL), RB No. 111 Kelvin Taylor (Belle Glade, FL) and WR No. 234 Rodney Adams (St. Petersburg, FL)…just to name a few. UF believes it is in a great position to add a number of commits by the weekend’s end.

4 » Former Florida defensive line coach Dan McCarney, now head coach of the North Texas Mean Green, remains in hospital Tuesday morning after suffering stroke on Sunday. In an interview with the Des Moines Register, McCarney said he had the stroke after working out but is expected to make a full recovery with no permanent damage lingering. “I’ve got too much Irish in me to stay down very long,” he joked. “I’m supposed to get out of the hospital in a couple days. I feel good right now. I’ve got a little tingling feeling, but hey, if that’s the worst of it, I’d say I’m a pretty lucky guy. Nothing wrong with me that a little Grey Goose won’t cure.” OGGOA wishes Coach McCarney our best wishes as he recovers.

5 » Going 5-0 in the 2012 season’s first weekend, Florida softball received some good news early this week. On Monday, the Gators learned that third baseman Sami Fagan won SEC Freshman of the Week honors after hitting .666 with three RBI, seven runs, two walks and a pair of stolen bases in five games. Florida was then crowned the new No. 1 team in the country (with 16 of 30 first-place votes) when USA Today and the NFCA released their latest coaches’ top 25 poll. Gators softball and baseball are both ranked as the top team in the nation.

6 » Conflicting reports emerged this week about whether or not Tim Davis was actually Gators head coach Will Muschamp’s first choice to be the team’s new offensive line coach. According to a number of stories, including one from ESPN’s Chris Low, Muschamp first reached out to South Carolina Gamecocks running game coordinator and OL coach Shawn Elliot, who turned down Florida even though UF was offering more than his new $300,000 annual salary pays at South Carolina. However, Muschamp himself denied to The Gainesville Sun’s Pat Dooley that he went after Elliot for the position. Regardless of who his first choice was, Davis is the one now wearing orange and blue and looking to improve an offensive line that struggled in performance and development one year ago.

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Haskins hired as Florida’s director of personnel

Former Stanford Cardinal and NFL linebacker Jon Haskins has been hired as the new director of player personnel for the Florida Gators football team, CBSSports.com‘s Bruce Feldman reported Tuesday evening.

Haskins, who served as director of player personnel for the Nevada Wolfpack in 2011, spent four years at Stanford prior to that as assistant director (2007) and director of player development (2008-10). He worked as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for Pace (2010) and the managing editor of Rivals.com affiliate Cardinal Report (2010-11) in the 19 months between those positions.

A four-year Cardinal starter from 1994-97, Haskins went on to spend three years in the NFL with San Diego and Philadelphia (1998-2000) before playing in the first and only season of the XFL for the San Francisco franchise (2000-01). After hanging up his cleats, he took a graduate assistant role at Duke, helping coach the offensive line, special teams and tight ends from 2002-04.

He also served as the assistant general manager and director of football operations for the Sarasota (his hometown) Arena2 football franchise (2005-06) and spent nearly two-and-a-half years away from the game before being hired by Stanford in 2007.

In his role with Florida, Haskins will primarily be counted on to coordinate the Gators’ recruiting efforts and help run football operations (among other responsibilities). The classes he helped recruit at Stanford finished 50th (2008), 20th (2009) and 26th (2010) nationally according to Rivals‘ final rankings.

Three of Haskins’s four years with the Cardinal were spent with current UF linebackers/special teams coach D.J. Durkin, who was a defensive ends/special teams coach at Stanford from 2007-09.

He replaces Mark Pantoni, who left the Gators’ following the 2011 season to join former head coach Urban Meyer‘s new staff at Ohio State.

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SIX BITS: Harvin’s healthy, Raymond wins, books, soccer & volleyball split, Floyd’s repayment

1 » Former Florida Gators wide receiver Percy Harvin is healthy – finally. After being nagged by injuries throughout his college career and having persistent migraines limit the amount of time he could practice and play for the Minnesota Vikings during his first two years in the NFL, Harvin has finally cleared all of that up and hopes to become the dynamic playmakers his teammates, coaches and fans know he can be. He told the St. Paul Pioneer Press last week that he has “tremendous confidence in my ability” and proved that Sunday, taking the opening kickoff 103 yards down the field for a touchdown. Having missed fewer than two practices in the offseason (for precautionary reasons due to sore ribs), Harvin is ready and raring to go and hopes to continue the electricity he showcased over the weekend.

2 » Former Florida tennis player Lisa Raymond has always seemed to excel in doubles action, where she is 700-251 all-time as a professional and has been a part of 71 title-winning duos (she was even half of the No. 1 pair in the world back in 2000). Raymond, with four Grand Slam doubles titles to her name this century, was looking to win her first this decade, teaming with Liezel Huber at the 2011 U.S. Open at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Entering the tournament as the No. 4 seed, Raymond and Huber made it all the way to the finals where they defeated No. 3 seed Vania King/Yaroslava Shvedova 4-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3) to win Raymond’s fifth Grand Slam and earn her the world No. 1 ranking she has been looking to recapture for nearly 11 years. At 38-years-old, Raymond would be considered by most to be a relic of professional tennis, but she told The New York Times that her age was an advantage going into the event. “I think that’s probably one of our biggest assets as a team is our experience,” she said after the victory. “We have years and years and years of being in finals of Slams, winning the championships, being down breaks in the third set to win or lose a Slam.”

3 » Two former Gators in the team’s Ring of Honor and the Pro Football Hall of Fame – running back Emmitt Smith and linebacker Jack Youngblood – are releasing brand new books chronicling their lives. Smith’s is titled Game On: Find Your Purpose – Pursue Your Dream “outlines the principles that helped him become a winner on and off the football field.” Youngblood’s – Because It Was Sunday – The Legend of Jack Youngblood – gives “readers and football fans an unprecedented, candid account of [his] remarkable life journey.” He will be at the University of Florida’s Alumni Hall promoting the book on Oct. 1, the day it is scheduled to be released.

4 » No. 9 Florida soccer (5-2) split a pair of games over the weekend, dropping a heartbreaker 3-2 to the No. 5 Florida State Seminoles on Friday before soundly defeating the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles 5-0 on Sunday. UF and FSU went back-and-forth Friday with the Seminoles scoring at 4’ and 55’ and the Gators knocking goals in at 45’ (junior midfielder Erika Tymrak) and 68’ (junior MF Holly King). With the match tied 2-2, Florida State’s Tiffany McCarthy scored her second goal of the evening and fifth of the season at 72’ to push her team to victory. Florida rebounded Sunday with a shutout victory including goals from freshman forward Tessa Andujar, Tymrak (16’), freshman defender Lauren Silver (24’), sophomore MF Caroline Triglia (43’) and senior F Lindsay Thompson (58’).

5 » Competing in the Nike Big Four Classic in Palo Alto, CA, No. 7 Gators volleyball (7-2) also split their weekend matches. Florida defeated the No. 10 Texas Longhorns in five sets (25-22, 20-25, 25-13, 21-25, 15-12) on Friday prior to being beat in similar fashion by the No. 3 Stanford Cardinal (17-25, 20-25, 25-20, 25-21, 13-15) on Sunday. Senior outside hitter Kristy Jaeckel led the way for the Gators with a total of 35 kills and 33 digs in back-to-back double-doubles, and senior right-side/setter Kelly Murphy followed suit with 26 kills and 59 assists in two double-double performances of her own.

6 » Gators sophomore defensive lineman Sharrif Floyd, as part of his punishment by the NCAA, is required to make arrangements to repay $2,700 to a charity of his choosing in addition to having already sat out the first two games of the 2011 season. Many OGGOA readers have asked via e-mail, comments and Twitter how Floyd will come up with the money before the Tennessee game on Saturday. The answer is simple: he doesn’t have to. According to a NCAA compliance expert who spoke with us over the weekend, Floyd – in conjunction with the University of Florida – only must submit to the NCAA his decision on how and over what period of time he plans to make payments. Further details on what Floyd chooses to do will likely be unavailable going forward, but the concern over him being able to pay the money prior to playing should be squashed in the interim.

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Embree’s will earns redemption for UF, Boonstra

Exactly one year ago today, Stanford Cardinal tennis player Mallory Burdette won her team the 2010 NCAA Championship. Squaring off against the higher-ranked Florida Gators, Stanford captured their 16th title when Burdette battled and eventually upended then-senior Marrit Boonstra 6-4, 6-7(4), 7-5 in the final match of the afternoon.

Boonstra, understandably, was devastated. Her 17-match singles winning streak came to an end and, more importantly, her inability to close that day cost her team a title. No one blamed her for the loss, but she heaped plenty of it on herself.

What a difference 12 months can make.

After falling to the Cardinal in that match and once again at the 2011 USTA/ITA Indoor Championships, the Gators had revenge on their minds entering the 2011 NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 overall seed.

And wouldn’t you know it? Fighting their way through the bracket with relative ease, Florida wound up face-to-face with Stanford on their home court, a place where the Cardinal had not lost in the last 184 matches spanning more than 12 years.

Tuesday night, it became sophomore Lauren Embree’s job to release that frustration and exact the revenge her team had been building up. What a coincidence it was Embree would be given that opportunity for the Gators…against the exact opponent who ended their party a year earlier.

Embree’s match with Burdette at Taube Tennis Center in Stanford, CA was one for the books. It may not have set records for match length or points won, but something special happened on the court that is tough to capture in words.

Fans in attendance and watching around the world saw two players scrape and claw their way to the brink. Label it determination, tenacity or perseverance; whatever you choose to call it, Embree-Burdette turned into Ali-Frazier and someone had to win.

Luckily for Florida, it was Embree, who fought against impossible odds to claim the fifth national title for the Gators women’s tennis program.

She started the match hot, up 5-1 in the first set before Burdette powered her way to six-straight games and a 7-5 win. Looking dejected, Embree fought back to claim the second set 6-3 and even things up. Then Burdette took over again, mounting a 4-0 advantage in the third and final set, putting Florida’s hopes for a title on the brink even as Gators freshman Olivia Janowicz held a massive lead on the far court.

Embree did not panic.

She kept her focus, channeled some inner strength and fought back to take a 5-4 lead. When Burdette knotted the match twice at 5-5 and 6-6, Embree kept her composure and realized, even though she was exhausted and outmatched physically, her opponent was just as tired and was making more and more mental mistakes.

If Embree could put away a point, she did. If she was falling behind, she kept her rally long enough where either Burdette would have to expend extra energy to win or commit an unforced error due to exhaustion, frustration or both.

Burdette may have had the physical advantage (not to mention a raucous home crowd cheering her on), but Embree was onto her and did everything she could to create opportunities for Burdette to slip up.

In the end, it worked. Embree won a thrilling tiebreaker 8-6, her teammates exploded onto the court to hug her in celebration and Gator Chomps were performed everywhere from Stanford to Gainesville.

Florida accomplished a rare feat.

Not only did they end an undefeated streak, beat the No. 1 team in the country and avenge two championship losses within the last 12 months, the Gators and Embree redeemed a player who gave her heart and soul to the team for four years only to be crushed emotionally in her final performance.

Tuesday night, on the court as a student coach for Florida, Boonstra smiled.

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