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Collins, men's soccer getting what they bargained for in brutal stretch

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Tyler Riggs has scored eight goals in 2011 and his 20 points rank second in the nation. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Tyler Riggs has scored eight goals in 2011 and his 20 points rank second in the nation. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Tonight at 8 p.m., Ian Collins and the No. 21 UK men's soccer team travel to Omaha, Neb., to face the third-ranked and unbeaten Creighton Bluejays. Brent Ingram will be traveling with the team and will be hosting a live blog beginning a few minutes before kickoff that you can follow here.

Two weeks ago, the UK men's soccer team was flying high. The Wildcats had just closed out a five-game home stretch with a 4-0-1 record. With the four victories, including one over then-No. 9 Michigan, Kentucky had risen to No. 15 in the national rankings.

Much of the next two weeks, the Wildcats would spend their time literally flying.

Playing six matches over the following 16 days in California, South Carolina, Nebraska and finally their home state, head coach Ian Collins and his team faced one of the most difficult scheduling stretches that can be conceived, and that doesn't even take into account the quality of UK's opponents. Traveling 6,106 miles over barely a two-week span, Collins knew the team would be tested, but that's exactly what he wanted.

"This is a tough stretch," Collins said. "Sometimes when you're looking to set a schedule, you want to challenge your team. We're in a league that involves a lot of travel and there's no better way to get prepared. It's brutal. It's very, very hard and we've been from East Coast to West."

Highlighting the brutal stretch is a trip to Omaha, Neb., on Wednesday to face one of the nation's top teams in Creighton. The itinerary for this brief jaunt borders on the insane. To minimize missed classes, the team flies out of Lexington at 1 p.m. on game day and arrives in Omaha in mid-afternoon. The Cats will take on the Bluejays at 8 p.m., shower and head directly to the airport for a flight back home that will land between 3 and 4 a.m.

"It's tough, but at the same time we're trying to test our players with one of the best schedules in the country," Collins said. "To do that you have to play good teams on the road and you can't always get perfect dates for that. We've got to deal with it and we can't make any excuses."

So far, UK is just 2-2-0 during the road stretch, dropping its record on the season to 6-2-1. The undefeated record may be gone because of those two losses, but the gains that have been made in terms of chemistry more than make up for that.

"Guys are starting to learn each other's personalities and figure each other out," Collins said. "We've got a lot of guys who didn't play last year and it was their first chance to travel with us. We've got a great group of guys and I think they're starting to figure each other out. I think that carries over onto the field."

Sophomore forward Tyler Riggs said the experience has engendered a sense of closeness into the team that did not exist before.

"It's definitely brought us all a lot closer together," Riggs said. "There used to be a few cliques with the team, but now it's like one big clique. Everyone hangs out with each other."

Perhaps more than any other sport, soccer is a game where team unity on the field of play is of the utmost importance. Players that know, like and understand one another can take their play as a collective whole to another level.

"I feel like I've gotten to know my teammates a lot more and we've bonded a lot," junior forward Matt Lodge said. "It helps us on the field knowing we can trust each other and rely on each other."

For Lodge, who hails from Rossington, England, and a roster featuring 10 players from outside the United States, it was a chance to experience parts of a country they are still getting to know.

"I was excited because I knew it would give me a chance to explore the country," Lodge said.

The exploration started out west with UK heading to the Golden State to take on Stanford and California. Things began inauspiciously, with the Wildcats playing their worst game of the season in a 3-1 loss against the Cardinal. Two days later, Collins' bunch righted the ship and performed much better against the No. 13 Golden Bears, but still lost by a score of 3-2.

"It's tough for any East Coast team to go out West and win games," Collins said. "We didn't play well in the Stanford game and we should have won the Cal game. We gave it away with two bad mistakes but we played much better."

It was at that point that the team, according to Collins, was faced with two choices: quit and use the challenges as an excuse or step up and embrace the situation as an opportunity. In practice over the following week, Collins laid down the gauntlet and the team answered as he hoped.

"Practice was physically difficult," Collins said. "We didn't give them any respite and they responded the right way. We trained hard all week and that's our M.O. for the season. We're going to train as hard as we can and trying to keep get better."

Next up for the Cats after that week of practice was a trip to Columbia, S.C., for the Gamecock Invitational. UK faced another two quality opponents and rose to the occasion. Lodge propelled the team to victory on Friday against High Point with a golden goal in overtime, setting up a showdown with No. 15 Brown. With the tournament title on the line, the Wildcats dazzled, smashing the Bears by a score of 5-1.

For Riggs, the performances were evidence of how far the team has come.

"Especially being able to bounce back from the two losses, it shows how much we've been able to grow as a team," Riggs said. "We started the season really well, then had those tough losses, but this weekend said a lot about our team that we were to beat some pretty highly rated teams."

Riggs has been at the center of all UK has accomplished. His two goals against Brown ran his tally on the season to eight in nine games. The sophomore is also the NCAA leader in points with 20 and has raked in both national and conference awards for his play.

"Tyler is a very smart kid on and off the field," Collins said. "Some of the movements he makes are exceptional. He has a knack for movement off the ball. Last year he did very well, but this year he's starting to refine his game. I've been very hard on him and I've pushed him every day. I've kept challenging him and all he does is respond."

The greatest challenge that Collins has issued Riggs is the target of scoring 20 goals this season. Such a high mark would shatter school records at UK but he would be very near the lofty goal if he maintains his current pace.

In his freshman season, Riggs impressed, scoring five goals and earning all-freshman honors in Conference USA. His play, though, has risen a level in 2011 and he credits his teammates and coaches for helping pave the way for his improvement.

"It's a little bit of everything," Riggs said. "The team has been helping me a ton, but it's also been some of my focus and determination. Coach Collins has definitely helped me with getting my mind focused to I can take advantage of every opportunity I have."

Riggs' numbers would suggest he has been a one-man wrecking crew this season, but that couldn't be further from reality. Lodge is fourth nationally in total points while Charles Pettys and C.J. Tappel each rank in the top ten in assists. Collins is a coach known primarily for his defensive prowess, but coaching an offensive juggernaut has been a pleasure for him.

"We've got some talented kids and it's really fun to see kids express themselves," Collins said. "We're playing good soccer and we've got good passing movement. Defensively, we have to keep getting better, but if we can keep scoring like this, we'll always give ourselves a chance to win games."

That offense, which ranks second nationally with 2.44 goals per match, will need to be in high gear against Creighton. In six games, the Bluejays have yet to allow a single goal and they are the only team in the nation that has shutout all of its opponents so far this season. Making things even more difficult is the fact that Morrison Stadium, the Bluejays' home venue, is among the toughest places to play all of the NCAA.

"I don't think there's a harder game in the country than where we're going to Wednesday," Collins said. "I think it's the toughest place to play in America and I think it will really challenge our guys. They'll enjoy it, but it will be a heck of a challenge."

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Disclaimer up front, am a Creighton fan and was at the game.
Blog stating 1st half PK was a harsh call, is.....a fan's perspective. When he said keeper was "Going for the ball", possibly, but he was beaten and when the keep "goes for the ball" and misses it completely, but gets LOTS of the attackers foot, a PK isn't harsh.
Wasn't aware UK had injuries till read the blog, that is too bad. Am sure CU would have preferred a whole squad, although injuries are part of the game. CU lost 2 all-conference players last year to injuries.
Referee allowed things to get out of hand in first half. Am sure their talk at half told him to get things under control, especially the behind the back hits.
Creighton controlled the 1st 25 plus minutes of the 1st half, it was then that things got physical. OUR take sitting and watching it was UK became frustrated with hardly touching the ball.
2nd portion of the opening half was more even. UK was playing much more physical, was called for 14 fouls in opening half, if memory is correct and referee could have whistled another 6 - 10 against them. CU also began fouling.
2nd half belonged to Creighton, they opened strong and it was only last 8 to 10 minutes when UK started to get possessions.
UK felt dangerous all night when on offense, and provided a couple of dangerous chances. There weren't enough of them or consistent.
However the UK keeper also kept the score close as he made at lest 3 great saves and had 2 CU shots bounce off the cross bar.
Overall, the better team won last night.

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  • Ron: Disclaimer up front, am a Creighton fan and was at the game. Blog stating 1st half PK was a harsh read more