A year ago, the Cats were underdogs, and 21 Strong reflected that. Not much was expected of UK, but the team surprised en route to a trip to the Southeastern Conference Tournament and hosting a game in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 seasons.
Gone are the days of sneaking up on opponents. Gone are the days of an underdog mentality. UK women's soccer made its mark on the national stage last season. Now, the Wildcats are ready to act like they belong.
"It is not an us-against-everyone attitude anymore," head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "I think as you improve the program, you get to the point where you say...we now have a target on our backs. Instead of rallying around, I think you are really talking about our own excellence."
The new mantra for 2012 is an outgrowth of that new mentality. The Wildcats - who open the season on Friday at 7 p.m. against Coastal Carolina - need only look inward for motivation.
"As a team we decided we were going to have the theme 'Believe,' " senior midfielder Alyssa Telang said. "Last year we were the underdogs in the SEC and we made it to the NCAA Tournament. This year it is just about believing in ourselves and believing that we can do greater things every year."
It shouldn't be too much of a stretch for the team to believe it can improve on last year's 13-7-1 record, because the Cats have done it every year since Lipsitz and Telang both arrived in 2009. That first season was a struggle, as UK won just five games. A year later, the Wildcats took a step forward with 10 wins and a trip to the SEC Tournament before progressing ever further in 2011.
"Every year we have just been working on creating this new culture that has been based on hard work, discipline and family," Telang said. "Different people have different qualities to add to our team and it is just amazing how much we have changed."
To Lipsitz, the changes make it impossible to compare the program as it was when he arrived and the one he presides over today.
"It's hard to do that now because I can't see the same things," Lipsitz said. "When I look back four years, it is as if it is two totally different programs. The answer is everything. Everything is different."
Telang and fellow senior Brooke Keyes are the lone holdovers from the 2009 roster, but the changes are about so much more than personnel. In fact, Lipsitz cites Telang as the perfect example of UK's evolution.
"She came here pretty shy, and not just shy, but a little meek at times," Lipsitz said. "She didn't want to stand out. She wanted to fit in, to the point, fitting in meant not creating waves, not embarrassing someone in practice, not doing a special thing. She at times struggled on and off the field and had to decide who she wanted to be."
Years later, Telang's decision is clear. She is still soft-spoken and would rather lead by example than with an impassioned speech, but she is not afraid to stand out and certainly not afraid to serve as a leader. Without hesitation, Lipsitz called Telang and Keyes the undisputed leaders of this team. They are the two team captains and their coach could not have more faith in them.
Before each season, Lipsitz summons team leaders to his office for a meeting to discuss what he will be asking of them throughout the year. Normally, the leadership summit takes place within the first day or two of fall camp. This year, a number of factors caused it to be delayed by a week and a half, which normally would have Lipsitz more than a little worried. But not this year.
"I literally let them come to me," Lipsitz said. "Imagine as a coach not having a meeting with the leaders 10 days into preseason. For me, that is unheard of. For me, I think that tells you something about how much trust I have in them and my trust in their abilities."
On the face of things, Telang and Keyes would seem to have a tall task in leading this year's team. Fifteen of the 32 players on the roster are freshmen, and another six sophomores. It's a young team that will cope with some growing pains, but the incoming class - ranked sixth in the nation - is having no trouble asserting itself.
"It is so awesome to have freshmen that so willingly come in and work hard and do all the little things," Telang said. "I have never had a freshman class since I have been here that works this hard and is so on top of things. It is just really cool to come out and compete every day and get better."
Getting better truly is what it's all about for UK. For Lipsitz, the "excellence" he so often talks about will be measured not by results on the scoreboard, but by the progress of his team.
"It is about what we did today," Lipsitz said. "Did we get better today? Yes. That is excellence today. Tomorrow we have to be better than that. The day after, we have to be better than that. If we follow the process of being our best and getting better every day, in the end, we will achieve more than we did last year."