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Team chemistry turns Gators' season around

Despite finishing the season without any reserves, UF rolls through the post-season with a team focus.

Florida women's tennis coach Andy Brandi doesn't like numbers. Six, seven, eight _ what difference does it make how many players sit around a locker room?

On court, six is enough.

It will have to be.

Down to six players, the minimum required to field six singles and three doubles teams, No. 2-seed Florida is drawing strength from its lack of numbers in trying to win its fourth NCAA championship.

"If they get hurt, there's nothing I can do about it," Brandi said. "But I do know that they are getting along right now and playing as well as they have all season. I honestly believe that with only five players we still could win a heck of a lot of matches."

That would be tricky. With each player competing in singles and doubles, an injury to one would cost the Gators two points in a best-of-nine dual match. The remaining players would have to win five of seven. But rather than fret, UF is focusing on positives.

"It puts more pressure on us to take care of ourselves, but at the same time it brings the six of us closer together," junior Stephanie Hazlett said. "We're all out there for each other, and we're all playing better because of it."

It's a recent revelation.

The Gators started the school year with eight players, one for each available scholarship. In the fall, M.C. White decided not to play her senior season while preparing for medical school. Three weeks ago, on the eve of the Southeastern Conference tournament, sophomore Erin Boisclair left the team having competed in two matches this season.

Throughout the regular season, Florida battled internal demons as well as opponents. The Gators' streak of 114 regular-season dual-match victories was snapped in a 5-4 loss at Wake Forest on March 5. Five consecutive regular-season SEC titles ended with a 5-2 loss at Georgia on April 12.

Brandi said a weight was lifted when Boisclair left the team.

"That one individual really had not earned her place in the lineup and actions that took place as a result of her not playing created a lot of difficult times for everybody else," Brandi said. "Once that was cleansed, they felt good about each other and where they were heading."

Doubts faded.

"At the beginning of the year, a lot of people had high expectations of us and then we lost twice and people began to doubt," sophomore Jessica Lehnhoff said. "Inside, maybe we doubted ourselves for a second or two, but then we regained our confidence. Deep down, we know all of us are good players and that we can do it."

At the SEC tournament, they showed it. Angered by their unfamiliar underdog status and united by their thinning roster, UF played inspired tennis for the first time. A 5-2 victory over Georgia in the final signaled UF's return to form.

"The best match they played as a team all season was the match against Georgia," Brandi said. "And if you're going to pick the right time to start playing your best tennis, I guess they did just that."

The Gators blew through two NCAA region matches last weekend in Gainesville, beating Bethune-Cookman and Florida State 5-0. UF plays Notre Dame (23-6) today in the round of 16. Stanford (27-0) is the top seed and heavy favorite to defend its title.

"You hear that everybody is going to NCAAs to compete for second place because Stanford is undefeated," Hazlett said. "It bugs you, but at the same time I think it's more fun going in there the underdog and coming out on top than going in there and having to fight off everybody. People are underestimating us, and we're going to surprise a bunch of people when we get there."

Florida hopes opponents look at its lack of depth and mistake it for lack of talent. Five of the six are among the nation's top 58 singles players in the collegiate rankings, led by eighth-ranked Whitney Laiho at No. 1 singles. This spring, the players are a combined 110-28.

"We can beat anyone if we play with our hearts," Lehnhoff said. "In the SEC tournament we learned to stick together in tight situations and cheer each other on. We felt the emotions all around us. It doesn't matter how many players we have, the outlook is the same."

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