Saturday night at a chilly and blustery UK Soccer Complex, the Kentucky women's soccer team fell to Washington State 4-2 in a penalty shootout after battling for 110 minutes to a 1-1 tie. It was the Wildcats' eighth appearance in the NCAA Tournament first round and it was the eighth time they exited after just one game.
But this time is different.
With three years in the books for UK head coach Jon Lipsitz, the future is bright. Scratch that, the future is very bright. The Wildcats' record has improved steadily in each of Lipsitz' three seasons at the helm, culminating in this year's 13-7 season that saw Kentucky host an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in 12 years.
"It hurts," Lipsitz said. "The only people that can feel how much this hurts are the people that put this much into something and have been in these moments in athletics. They know what it feels like. It's very, very difficult. But, we're proud of where we are and I'm very proud of this team."
Exhausted with the remnants of dried tears on their faces following the emotional loss, seniors Kelsey Hunyadi and Kiondra McGee sat at the podium in the postgame media room starring into space. They will not play again for Kentucky, but 18 of the 21 players on Kentucky's roster will.
"One of the things I said to Kiondra and Kelsey is that, 'I'm so glad you guys got to play in the NCAA's, because otherwise it would have been you guys coming back in future years and me saying to you, look what you did. Look at this. This is you. You did this,' " Lipsitz said. "It sure is a lot more fun to say, 'You did this and you got to play in the NCAA's.' "
Lipsitz and Kentucky stood toe to toe with a talented Washington State squad and fell just short of making program history by advancing to the second round. But if you had said at the beginning of the year that Kentucky would go to the NCAA Tournament at all, much less host a game in the first round, many people would have called you crazy.
"I can't put into words how proud I am of this group," Lipsitz said. "This is a team that was put at next to last in the preseason SEC poll. It's a team that nobody outside of our team felt that we'd have a chance to play in the NCAA. To get to host for the first time since 1999 was incredibly exciting and we deserved it. There were really wonderful moments. I'm sure there will be times in the future where we look back and remember what a wonderful stepping-stone this was for the program."
And that's ultimately how Lipsitz and the rest of the Kentucky women's soccer program will look at the game; as a stepping stone. They are proud of hosting an NCAA Tournament game and defying all preseason expectations, but Lipsitz isn't just excited about the future being so bright, he's excited about what they did this year.
"One of the reasons we're so excited for the future is because of how far we got this year," Lipsitz said. "We came further than we were supposed to. We're excited because of now, not because of the future."