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Written for dead, Cats alive and stronger than ever

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MSOC 09_10 UK_UNCA  WEB 24.jpgIan Collins, with a smile as wide as the Pacific Ocean, just got done talking with Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart about his team's triumphant postseason-sealing 1-0 victory over longtime powerhouse Southern Methodist.

"Back from the dead," Collins yelled.

His words couldn't have rung more true.

Written for dead nearly a month ago, the Kentucky men's soccer team has resurrected itself. After three losses to open conference play, Kentucky's hopes of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003 not only appeared to be dashed, they were all but gone.

Forget about the NCAA tourney - this team was in serious jeopardy of missing out on one of four bids to make the Conference USA Tournament.

"Never write us off. Never," Collins said. "If you track our history since 1993, don't ever write us off. Don't ever do that because it's dangerous."

Ask Memphis, South Carolina, Central Florida, Florida International or SMU. They'll tell you it's not only dangerous, it's lethal.

The once road-kill Cats have suddenly steamrolled through the final part of their schedule, winning five of their last six and four straight.

Wednesday's 1-0 win over SMU clinched the fourth and final spot in the C-USA Tournament, which will be held Nov. 13-15 at the winner of the regular-season crown (still to be determined between UAB, Tulsa and Marshall).

"This is probably the biggest win in my career here," senior defender and co-captain Barry Rice said. "Nobody on campus expected us to be here. As a senior you're thinking your season and career are over. The spirit among the guys is amazing to bounce back and win four in a row and to close it off at home. It's an amazing feeling. I couldn't be more happy than I am right now."

Rice could barely fight back his emotions following Wednesday's potential season-changing victory. For a player who has been a part of two unbelievable NCAA Tournament snubs, Saturday's victory couldn't be more gratifying for the two-time C-USA Defensive Player of the Year.

"In my personal opinion, some people work better when there is adversity against you and people are counting you out," Rice said.

Rice said those three straight losses to open league play served as an eye-opener for this team. Ranked in the top 25 to start the year, Rice said they needed to be brought back down to earth to realize what it takes to be a championship team.

It might have been a risky move, but arguably no team is playing better in the conference right now. Behind the senior leadership of Rice, Jason Griffiths (who Rice called the star of Wednesday's game) and Dan Williams, the stingy defensive play of late (just one goal allowed over the last four games), or the sudden scorching-hot play of Tim Crone (who provided the game-winner Wednesday), UK has showed the heart and resiliency of a champion.

"Most people wrote us off at 0-3 (in league play)," Collins said. "Everybody did except our own players and our own staff and maybe two or three other people. Everybody said we were done. We did it really hard. We won four games on the road in a tough league and then we took care of a big game today. I'm really proud of the players, the assistant coaches and everybody on this team for the effort they've put in. The effort they've put in the last month has been phenomenal."

Collins said it's been a total team effort. When everyone pushed the Cats against the wall and counted them out, they all came together, regrouped and rebounded stronger than ever.

In reality, UK had five straight elimination games to end the season in conference play. If the Cats would have lost just one of those games (at Memphis, at South Carolina, at UCF, at FIU or at home against SMU), the season was over, plain and simple.

"A lot of teams would have folded in that position, but we don't fold," Collins said. "When our backs are to the wall, we fight more."

Now UK enters the tournament as the team to beat. Yes, the Cats dropped all three decisions to the three other teams in the tournament, but Collins said his team had a bit of misfortune with a bounce or two the other way and a few injuries.

"I promise you the three other teams that made this tournament wanted us to lose today because we're now the team that nobody wants to play," Collins said.

Wednesday's win was just a small step in the season-long goal to make the NCAA Tournament. The Cats still have a lot of work to do - they have to likely win the league tournament to get in, by their own admission - but they've at least given themselves a chance.

With this team, that's all you need. Give an inch and they'll take a mile.

"We haven't won anything yet so we're certainly not happy, but it gives us a chance to compete for a championship and we're going to do our best to go win that," Collins said. "It's not about making it. It's about winning it." 

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1 Comment

Fantastic performance by the team after being written off by most people after a terrible start.
The coaching staff have done a great job in lifting the boys.Looking forward to the play offs.
Also, big thanks to the boys on the live blog.All of Brads family on the blog here in Australia.
Go the mighty cats !!!!!!!!!

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