When Mitch Barnhart tabbed Jon Lipsitz as head coach three years ago, he believed Lipsitz would lead the Wildcats back to the NCAA Tournament, but it would require patience. The Cats showed progress in Lipsitz's first two seasons, culminating with an above .500 finish and a trip to the Southeastern Conference Tournament in 2010.
Even so, 2011 wasn't supposed to be the year the Wildcats asserted themselves on the national scene according to those outside the program. However, there was a different sense around the UK Soccer Complex from day one.
"I don't think there were a lot of people outside this group that believed we were going to be sitting here talking to you today about an NCAA bid," Lipsitz said. "Supposedly we weren't there yet and we weren't ready, but we felt something else this entire season."
With a young, shallow roster and a demanding schedule, the Cats had plenty of reasons to doubt themselves, but they never did.
"There has been a strength in this team," Lipsitz said. "We have been low on numbers from the beginning and took that as a positive and took that as an opportunity to be, as they say every day, '21 Strong'. You've been able to see something, you've been able to feel something."
The motto is a reference to the 21 players on this year's roster and has come to define this team. Nearly all team huddles break with a chorus of "21 Strong", while nary a tweet of any player or coaches end without being punctuated by the hash tag version (#21strong).
The 21 Wildcats, with a 13-7-0 (6-5-0 SEC) regular season in one of the nation's toughest conferences, have punched their tickets for the NCAA Tournament. Reaching the College Cup for the first time since 2006, UK will host Washington State (12-6-3, 6-3-2 Pac-12) at 7 p.m. Saturday at the UK Soccer Complex. It will mark the first time UK has hosted a tournament game since 1999, and fulfills a goal the Cats have had in mind all season.
"One of our huge goals as we started realizing this is an NCAA season, was we wanted to host," Lipsitz said. "And I think, from the top to the bottom, our administrators, our fans, our players and our families deserve that."
There's no question that reaching the tournament and earning the right to host a game are accomplishments in and of themselves, but the Cats wouldn't do justice to the mentality they've embraced all season if they were content.
"This is a starting point, not an end point," Lipsitz said. "This is a starting point not only for this program in the future, but more importantly for a new season."
Lipsitz, though, has made sure to stop and give his team time to enjoy the moment. He's worked tirelessly to help give UK a chance at this "new season", but gives ultimate credit to his players.
"It's, first of all and most importantly, thanks to this family (of players)," Lipsitz said. "These players have worked their tails off and have made a decision to come here and do this together. It was a leap of faith to say we're going to do this."
It's no accident that Lipsitz refers to his team as a "family" and the "21 Strong" mantra is an embodiment of the atmosphere Lipsitz has created around the program. And for the man that hired him, it stands out above any win the Cats pick up on the field.
"I think the thing that he's done most is that he's created a family environment," Barnhart said. "He's created a situation where these women do a good job of taking care of each other. They want to be better for those that are ahead of them as juniors and seniors and the seniors do a great job of leading the younger kids."
In hiring Lipsitz, Barnhart also couldn't ignore his proven background as a winner. In 10 seasons as a head coach, Lipsitz sports a record 129-57-15, including back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament with Charlotte, his last stop before coming to UK.
Coaching a team that lacks experience in the NCAA's, the lesson he'll try to impart above all others leading up to Saturday is "Have fun."
"I have gotten to be there before and it is the culmination of everything you work for," Lipsitz said. "When you're not in the NCAA's, you think about the future and that's how we felt at the end of last year. When you get there, it feels totally different."
Although it may feel different, Lipsitz won't ask his team to be anything other than the family of 21 they've been all season when they take the field against Washington State.
"Sometimes when you get into a big game, individually and as a team, you try to be something more than you are," Lipsitz said. "All we have to do is be ourselves and be the best we can be and we'll do great."
To access ticket information for Saturday's NCAA Tournament game at the UK Soccer Complex, visit Kentucky's Tourney Central page.