Veterans Are Leading Bulldogs To Stellar Season

Veterans Are Leading Bulldogs To Stellar Season

By John Frierson
Staff Writer

The cross was a veteran cross. The finish was a veteran finish. The goal, Mollie Belisle’s go-ahead header off a perfect past from Dani Murguia, was a piece of perfection that lifted the Georgia soccer team to a 4-3 victory over Florida on Thursday night.

Georgia (11-3-2, 4-2-2) led the game 3-1 seven minutes into the second half, and things seemed pretty well under control against a Gators team (3-10-3, 2-5-1) that has struggled this season. But then things took a turn at the Turner Soccer Complex.

Florida scored with about 28 minutes to play, cutting the lead to 3-2. A few minutes later, the Gators got a breakaway and Bulldog senior defender Cecily Stoute made a desperation tackle just outside the top of the penalty box. Stoute was given a red card, leaving Georgia with 10 women the rest of the way, and then Florida executed an excellent free kick that found the back of the net, tying the game 3-3.

Suddenly tied and suddenly playing shorthanded, Georgia could have been so rattled that it gave up another goal or two. Instead, the Bulldogs regrouped and got back to doing what they’ve done so often this season. They survived the momentum shift, started to impose their will again on the attack, and with just under 6 minutes left on the clock, Murguia got the ball on the right side, deep in Gator territory.

Murguia, a senior, had already scored twice Thursday, each goal coming on an assist from Belisle, who has been a scoring machine herself this season. They went into the Florida game with a combined 21 goals (14 for Belisle and seven for Murguia), and Murguia came in with 10 assists, one shy of tying the school record.

As Murguia controlled the ball on the right wing, there was Belisle positioning herself in the middle of the box. A graduate player, Belisle decided to come back for her final season in part because she felt something special was brewing with this team, She was right.

“We’ve worked hard to improve and get to where we are, and I don’t know what clicked, but it’s crazy. But I knew it was coming, and that’s part of the reason I came back, because I had so much faith,” Belisle said back in early September after she’d scored nine goals in Georgia’s first six games.

Murguia’s right-footed cross was about head high as it carried into the box and Belisle went up and directed the ball into the right side of the goal, far away from Florida goalkeeper Alexa Goldberg. It was two longtime teammates putting all of those hours together on the practice field to picture-perfect use.

The timing, the spacing, the execution — that play was years in the making. It was Belisle’s 15th goal of the season and Murguia’s 11th assist, tying the school record set by Suzannah Weathersbee in 1996. Both players also scored back on Sept. 26, when the Bulldogs went down to Baton Rouge and upset No. 5 LSU, 2-1.

This is coach Billy Lesesne‘s seventh season at Georgia and this is his best yet, due in part to the veteran squad he’s sending out each game. Belisle and standout defender Kayla Bruster came back this season as graduates and fellow starters Murguia, Stoute, Abby Boyan, Bella Ponzi and goalkeeper Emory Wegener are all seniors that have loads of game experience over the past few seasons.

“They set a really high standard,” said Lesesne, whose roster features two graduates, seven seniors, seven juniors, five sophomores and 14 freshmen.

“Those 14 freshmen to come in and they look at the Boyans, the Ponzis, the Brusters, who are always out there doing extra work — first in the building, last to leave. As a freshman you think, what are the leaders doing? And that’s what the leaders are doing, putting in extra work. That set us up to be in a good place now, and it will continue in the future because they now see what the level looks like.”

Wegener, a four-year starter in goal, is the current SEC Defensive Player of the Week after holding South Carolina scoreless for 110 minutes last week. The Gators got a couple of shots past her Thursday but down the stretch, after Florida tied the game, she and the defense around her dug in and got stops, including a brilliant diving save to her right by Wegener in the 75th minute to deflect the ball away from goal.

During her long Georgia career, Wegener said in a recent interview, she’s done “a full 180” in all aspects of her game.

“I came in as an itty-bitty freshman, never had goalkeeper training, really, in my life, never seen a weight room,” she said. “Both physically and mentally, I’ve matured and grown as a person. A full 180 for me.”

Boyan has started every game since she became a Bulldog, She has five goals and seven assists this season and 15 goals for her career. Having so many teammates that she’s played with over multiple seasons is making a huge difference for the Bulldogs this season, she said.

“A lot of us have been playing together for four years now, three or four years, so it definitely helps when we go out there,” Boyan said recently. “We know how everyone plays and how everyone reacts to different things, so it’s a lot easier when we go into practice or games knowing that.”

These senior-led Bulldogs will be back at it Sunday when they play at No. 10 Tennessee.

Assistant Sports Communications Director John Frierson is the staff writer for the UGA Athletic Association and curator of the ITA Men’s Tennis Hall of Fame. You can find his work at: Frierson Files. He’s also on Twitter: @FriersonFiles and @ITAHallofFame.

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