by Laurel Pfahler

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."