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'Til the Battle is Won: Soccer signee keeps playing, her mother keeps fighting

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Most girls Arin Gilliland's age are starting to contract senioritis. They're planning for graduation, soaking in the final few months of their high school lives and even thinking about prom.

For Arin, there will be no prom and no senior activities with her friends. She'll walk with former classmates at West Jessamine's graduation ceremonies in June, but it will be months after Arin graduated a semester early from high school.

Arin enrolled early with the University of Kentucky and the women's soccer team in January with much deeper hopes and dreams in mind. Her mother, Letita Gilliland, Arin's biggest fan and most loyal supporter, has stage IV liver cancer.

The Gillilands aren't sure how much time she has left.

"She always wanted me to go to UK," Arin said. "I wanted her to be able to experience seeing me on the field. I feel like I owe it to her. I want her to be able to see me play a few games, even if it's just one game."

Letita was diagnosed with cancer a little more than a year and a half ago. Originally diagnosed with colon cancer, the Gillilands were horrified when they learned it had spread to Letita's liver.

Arin still remembers the day her father, Bruce Gilliland, told her the devastating news. Like any teenage girl in the middle of high school, a few of Arin's friends were staying the night at Arin's house. Letita had been experiencing cramps and stomach pains, but Arin didn't think anything of it until her father walked down the next day and told her just how serious the cancer was.

She prides herself on keeping her emotions to herself, but cancer has a way of bringing the world's strongest warriors to their knees. On that day, Arin broke down into tears.

"They didn't really let me in on how serious it was until like four months in, which really upset me because I thought it was just something she could take chemo and get better and be back out there," Gilliland said. "It turned out it was stage IV. They caught it way too late."

When Letita was told she had cancer, Arin said it hardly affected her daily habits. Letita continued to go to work full time as a hair dresser and acted as if "it was a cold and it would go away."

"She never lets you know that it's bothering her," Arin said. "She never shows pain, never lets it affect our family. If you saw her, she's still got that glow on her face. She's a fighter."

Visits to the hospital for radiation treatments and chemotherapy have become routine for Letita these days. Just a couple of weeks ago she had to drive to Louisville for a stronger treatment plan that UK Hospital doesn't offer. The treatment made Letita so sick that she had to stay overnight. Days after, she was still throwing up pain medication.

"The tumors aren't showing any growth," Arin said, "but they're not shrinking either."

The situation is filled with strain. The transition from adolescence to adulthood can be delicate as it is, but when you throw in early enrollment, Arin's travel schedule with soccer and the realization that her mother might not be with her tomorrow, it could be crippling at a critical time in her life.

Add all that to the fact that Arin has a 9-year-old brother, Saylor, who doesn't really understand what's going on with his mother.

"I feel like I have to be that mother figure for him because, one way or another, I'm going to have to be his mom," Arin said. "That's the toughest part of it because you don't know what to say to him."

Arin can talk about her mother's cancer a lot easier than she could six months ago. Although she doesn't like to show her feelings, you used to be able to see the uncertainty in her face and hear the tremble in her voice. Now, through helping other people in similar scenarios, Arin feels more at peace with the situation.

How Arin manages to get through all that, though, along with maintaining the expectations of being one of the top women's soccer signees in the nation, is truly remarkable.

"It's really mentally exhausting," Arin said. "I like to take things as they come and I don't like to think about it. I like to go day to day to day. People, if they think about stuff so much, they discourage themselves from doing it. I've always had a good mind about doing things and knowing that I could do it."

As one of the nation's top soccer stars, Arin was forced to grow up from an early age. Tournaments with her select club, Ohio Elite, had her traveling across the country throughout her youth. Arin said she was never home for more than three weeks at a time.

"I actually felt like I had to grow up when I was a freshman and sophomore in high school because that's when I started all (the traveling for soccer)," Arin said. "I had to do everything by myself, get all my work done ahead of time and contact all my teachers. Doing that as a freshman and sophomore, you're 14 years old. I had to take on the role of being older and being more responsible."

Arin's strength and structure were also traits she learned from her mother.

Both stubborn and independent, one (Letita) from having grown up in an Army family and the other (Arin) from watching her mother, Arin and Letita have always jockeyed for the leadership role in the family. That led to some disagreements and somewhat of a rocky relationship when Arin was younger.

"My wife likes to keep tabs on her," said Bruce, the laidback, hands-off puzzle piece of the family.

The truth was Arin was a hard-headed, fast-paced kid that could take on more than just about anybody else her age. The daily battle between who was controlling what in Arin's life got the best of both of them.

The tension between Arin and Letita wore off a few years ago once Arin grew up. Arin said she realized her mother just cared for her and wanted to be a part of her life. Letita's support couldn't have been more obvious than Arin's final high school season at West Jessamine.

Even with all the chemo treatments and her full-time job, Letita missed just one high school game last year. Letita traveled across the country for Arin's club matches and even tried to disobey a doctor's orders to board a plane for one of Arin's tournaments.

It's been that way since Letita introduced Arin to soccer when she was 5. Bruce, a former state wrestling champion at Fern Creek High School in the 1970s, wanted Arin to play fast-pitch softball, but Arin shared her mother's affinity for soccer from the start.

Before a game against Tates Creek, Letita challenged her daughter to score a hat trick. Arin went out and scored three goals.

"I hit some shots from like crazy out," Arin said. "I don't know where the strength came from."

Arin was a prolific scorer in high school. She finished her career with 109 career goals at West Jessamine en route to being named a Parade and NSCAA All-American, as well as the 2010 Miss Kentucky Soccer. Arin was a member of the U18 national team a couple of years ago, is widely regarded as one of the top 20 players in the nation and is arguably the best women's soccer player to ever come out of the state of Kentucky.

A couple of weeks ago, Arin continued her ascension by making the U20 national team. Last week she traveled to Spain to compete in the Four Nations Cup where she played against the world's best women's soccer talent.

Arin was proud of the accomplishment, but her end goal is to make the roster next March for the FIFA/CONCACAF World Cup.

Thumbnail image for 2561926.jpegSimply put, this was a player third-year head coach Jon Lipsitz had to have.

"When I was interviewing for the job, I told Mitch Barnhart in my interview that if you want this to be a contender for a national championship, you have to have Arin Gilliland play at UK," Lipsitz said. "From the day that I was fortunate enough to get this job, Arin was my number one recruit."

Arin was recruited by just about every major program in the nation. From North Carolina to Florida State to Texas and Stanford, they all called for Arin's services. Arin gave the schools a chance and took a couple of visits, but she knew pretty early where she wanted to go.

By the end of her sophomore year, Arin had already committed to Kentucky.

"She doesn't want to just be another name or another number," Bruce said. "She wants to make an impact."

Said Arin: "I'm the type of person that hates those teams that win everything. I don't see how a person can want to go to a school that's always known to win championships. Yes, you're a part of that, but did you help build that program? It's just another thing. If you come to a program that is up and coming and you can help make this program something, you're going to have that legacy."

Arin is the type of player that can change a program, but Lipsitz said the program isn't built around one player. Although she's the most decorated player to ever sign with the school, she's been pushed by Lipsitz just like any other player in winter workouts.

Other coaches have called Lipsitz to weigh in on where to play Arin once her collegiate career begins. Lipsitz said she has the ability to play any position on any collegiate team and be a star, but he'll probably use her in the midfield this spring to get as many touches as possible and get her used to UK's style of play.

Lipsitz's biggest concern is that he doesn't want to put too much on the shoulders of a young girl already carrying the weight of the world. As Lipsitz likes to remind people, "she's still just a high school senior."

"One of the things that I don't want us to lose sight of is she needs to have fun," Lipsitz said. "OK, so she's a starter on the U20 national team and she's All-American and she's all Miss This and That - she's still a kid. She needs to enjoy what she's doing or none of this is worth it."

Arin, who wants to become a dentist, is enjoying her time at Kentucky, although she admits it's been a bit of an eye opener. Balancing a first-time collegiate workload along with 6 a.m. workouts, tutors and trips like last week's one to Spain can sometimes be overwhelming for Arin.

Arin, as she always has, pushes through anyway.

Team rules prevented Letita or any other parents from making the trip to Spain to watch her daughter last week. Letita would have gone in a heartbeat and skipped her chemo treatments if she could have.

Instead, Letita is biding her time and counting down the days until March 12. That's Arin's first spring game with Kentucky. It will just be an exhibition game, but it may mean more to Arin than any other game she's every played in her illustrious career.

Arin just wants her mother to see her play in blue and white.

"I feel like everything I'm doing is for her," Arin said. "I want to make her proud and want her to know she's the reason I made it to where I am today."

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