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Women's soccer hopes to build on foundation

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DSC_8446.jpgWith every great rebuilding project comes time and patience. With every great structure comes a foundation to stand upon and build.

That's what year one of the Jon Lipsitz era in the Kentucky women's soccer program was all about. As much as Lipsitz wanted to win in his first season at UK, the stagnant culture of mediocrity had to be changed, torn down from the top and rebuilt in the manner that had worked so well in Lipsitz's previous stops at Charlotte and Division III Denison.

"The thing that now feels old, which is good, is our culture," Lipsitz said. "Everything last year was new. It was putting out fires, it was teaching something but then saying, 'No, this is what I really mean.' "

Lipsitz's goals were simple concepts - putting the team first, a strong work ethic, mutual sacrifice and family - but yet hard to instill overnight. As Lipsitz said, "When you have experienced players that have bought into your culture, that care deeply about who we are, it becomes much easier."

That wasn't necessarily something Lipsitz had last year. Sophomore or senior, it didn't matter - they were all freshmen when it came to understanding Lipsitz's philosophies and style. It was new for everybody.

"You have to understand that you're asking a lot of people who have done something a certain way for so long to suddenly change that," Lipsitz said. "It's not about right or wrong. I think a lot of people think, 'Well, this is the new way, therefore it's right.' That's not necessarily true. It's just different. It's not even if people consciously choose not to do it that way, it's subconsciously. They've been taught to do it a certain way for a long time and now you're asking them to do something very different."

Lipsitz had to break the mold. Sometimes the players last year would show signs in practice, but as soon as some of them faced adversity they reverted back to their old habits.

"What I needed to do was change who we are," Lipsitz said. "That doesn't happen in a couple months."

Last season wasn't lost on Lipsitz. He has been open and outspoken about his unhappiness of last year's results and said he felt as if he let the athletics department down.

But when the rebuilding project is so large and so extensive, expectations must be tamed a bit. Lipsitz headed into the season with high hopes for his first-year squad and left impressed with his team's dedication to pull out five wins in 18 games. He called it one of the hardest working teams he's ever coached.

"Still last season was painful trying to do that while you're in a season," Lipsitz said. "And that's part of the difficulties of a fall sport. We've been through that now and we're totally different."

In changing the culture over the last year, Lipsitz had to figure out who was and wasn't willing to buy into the new system. Unfortunately part of that process was making some wholesale roster changes.

Of the 27 players on the official UK roster, only 10 are juniors or seniors, two of which -- Natalie Horner and Kelsey Hunyadi -- redshirted last year. There are 14 newcomers on this year's team, 13 of which are freshmen. Lipsitz said they started six freshmen in an exhibition earlier in the week, including at all three forward positions, and that number should stay fairly consistent throughout the year.

That's a lot of new faces and inexperience, with which question marks are soon to follow.

"The players know that, while being a great teammate, they're battling for their spot every day," Lipsitz said. "That's part of what we want in our culture. Our whole lineup could change from game to game."

At the same time, Lipsitz feels like this year's team, which kicks off its season Saturday at 6 p.m. at the UK Soccer Complex against Coastal Carolina, better reflects the culture that he believes in than last year's did.

The way Lipsitz sees it, the foundation was laid last year. Now it's time to build on it.

"A friend of mine, whose another college coach, said, 'Think of last year as year zero where you go in and lay the ground work and this is the first time it's your team. It's your first recruiting class, the first time people have come there to play for you.' I went home and I started thinking about that and thought - absolutely no disrespect to the team last year, they worked so hard, and I want that known that they worked so hard - but it was year zero because we were all learning a new culture together," Lipsitz said. "This is year one now and if you think about it that way there's a lot to be excited about."

For one, Lipsitz expects this season's Cats to be much better offensively. After scoring a league-low 11 goals last year, putting the ball in the net has been one of the biggest emphases in the preseason.

"The biggest reason (we struggled on offense) last year was our lack of possession," Lipsitz said. "We just struggled technically to hold onto the ball. Our midfield is totally revamped and that's going to help us possess the ball much more. We're still going to have to be tight defensively. My teams are always going to care about winning the ball, about pressing other teams, about defending hard. But when you can play out of that with great possession and knocking the ball around your feet and get good chances on goal, you enjoy the game a lot more. And we have a much better ability up top, athletically, to run at people than we did last year."

With all the infusion of talent and youth, what about the veterans that bought in and are returning? Where do they fit in?

So far, they've embraced their roles as leaders.

"I can tell you - and this is from our staff, from everyone that helps us, to every player that comment over and over - is they can't believe how close we are," Lipsitz said. "They can't believe how much fun it is and I keep hearing those things every day. Even when we have a moment in practice where we're not playing our best and I say, 'Hey, we need to do better than this,' it's all positive. Our players are encouraging one another and that goes a long way."

The second-year coach said that's a credit to the upperclassmen.

"People are a lot more comfortable playing coach's style of play," said forward Laura Novikoff, one of just three seniors on the team. "He plays a very unique style that takes some time adjusting to. I think the upperclassmen have adjusted to it well enough that it's second nature to us, which makes it easier for the freshmen."

Novikoff admitted to having reservations about 13 freshmen coming in, noting that it was almost half the team, but she said there have been absolutely zero problems in the age differences meshing together.

"It's just a lot more cohesive team," Novikoff said. "I would say there is a lot more team chemistry this year. Everybody is just a lot more excited about everything coach wants us to do on and off the field."

Buying in was the foundation. The next part, Lipsitz hopes, is winning.

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