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Women's soccer's remarkable offensive, team turnaround

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UK-Vandy_wsoc_022.JPGImagine a soccer offense similar to a no-huddle, four-wideout football team (sounds kind of like the Oregon football team, huh?). That's what Jon Lipsitz is trying to implement in his second year at the helm of the women's soccer program.

"We are gunslingers and that's our attitude," Lipsitz said. "We throw everybody in the attack. We take every risk possible. Let's be honest. Soccer can, at times, be a little mundane and a little boring. I love the game but I'm willing to say that. We don't want it to be. We want it to be exciting. We want the crowd to love what they see. We want to try fancy moves and take risks."

But in his first year as the head coach, Lipsitz's team, to put it bluntly, was boring because it failed to score goals. In 18 games in 2009, UK found the back of the net a Southeastern Conference-low 11 times.

In Kentucky's last two games alone, the Cats have scored 11 goals, including a 6-1 rout of Vanderbilt on Friday night in a literal must-win situation to make it to the SEC Tournament.

Lipsitz said he's "felt" an offensive outburst coming for a while, but improving from 11 goals to 31 goals in one season takes more than just a feeling.

"Our players have just worked extremely hard in training," Lipsitz said. "I think that's a lot of it, and we have really emphasized our attack for the last three weeks, almost exclusively. We still do defending every day but we've really spent a lot more time on our attack."

Lipsitz, whose team will play No. 2 seed South Carolina on Wednesday at noon in the SEC Tournament in Orange Beach, Ala., also said his team is healthy for the first time all year.

UK's leading goal scorer, junior Kelsey Hunyadi (eight goals), has sat out four games this year due to concussions, and for the first time last week, the Cats' three top offensive threats, Hunyadi, junior forward Natalie Horner and freshman forward Caitlin Landis, practiced together.

"We're healthier than we were the first day of preseason," Lipsitz said.

The practice paid off Friday as Hunyadi played what Lipsitz called one of the best games he's seen in a long time, Landis scored a goal, and Horner tallied two goals and two assists.

"Natalie came here a very dynamic player, a very special player, but I think what she's done is she's become a more complete player," Lipsitz said. "She's become more of a goal scorer, she's become more aggressive going to goal, she's become a better passer and she's become a much better defender."

When UK essentially faced elimination matches at Mississippi State and against Vanderbilt, the offense that had held the Cats back for the last two years finally opened up. For seniors Laura Novikoff, Kelly Browning and Sydney Hiance, who have had to bear a coaching change and adapt to a new roster, it was the perfect way to get into the SEC Tournament.

"I can't describe how much this means to me just to be a part of this team," Novikoff said. "To be a part of this atmosphere, this team, with all the adversity we've faced and how much we've had to grow and struggle and change as a team, to come out and finish like this, it means a lot to me."

The victory was just as important for Lipsitz, who, in his second year at the helm of the program, wanted to see tangible results in the program's improvement.

In his first year on the job, Kentucky stumbled to a 5-9-4 record and 11th-place finish in the SEC. This year, UK will head into the SEC Tournament with a 10-7-2 mark.

"One of my concerns last week is if we don't beat Vandy and we don't make the SEC Tournament, the players won't feel like we have really made the next step in rebuilding this program and people outside the program that don't see the work that they've done every day won't see it," Lipsitz said.

The key now for Lipsitz and his team is avoiding complacency. Will the team be satisfied with its marked improvement and SEC Tournament invited or will it fight for more?

UK's opponent, South Carolina, was one of the few teams to dominate the Cats all season, winning 5-1 in Lexington a couple of weeks ago.

"I called them all in (before training) and I said, 'Look, if we're going down for an expense-paid trip to the beach on UK's dollar for 36 hours and we're just going to have a little kick around in the park, tell me now,' " Lipsitz told his team. " 'Because if that's going to be our attitude then there is no reason for me to push you in training and there is no reason for us to be flying down there. But just tell me so I know how to handle it.

" 'If we're going down there to kick some butt, advance and be there until Sunday, I need to know that also because we're about to train for an hour and 15 minutes and I'm going to need to push you on every single moment. Every single thing I'm going to be on you.' They said, 'We're going down there to win.' They get it."

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