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Women's soccer: Lipsitz managing, capitalizing on added depth

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Through two games, 22 Wildcats have seen playing time for the women's soccer team. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Through two games, 22 Wildcats have seen playing time for the women's soccer team. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Jon Lipsitz had simply gotten used to coaching with a short bench. Limited depth on his 2011 roster forced him into regularly leaving multiple players on the field for all 90 minutes.

That's not a problem anymore.

In 2012, Kentucky is suddenly awash in depth. Lipsitz has found himself furiously substituting players so far this season, so much so that he realized last weekend he was actually interrupting his own team's momentum.

"There was actually a moment in the (Eastern Kentucky) game in the second half where we were subbing quite a bit and getting a lot of players in the game," Lipsitz said. "I was doing it because I want as many players as possible to get experience on the field to see how they react and see if the things we've worked on in training are coming through."

Taking the air out of his team in the short term isn't ideal, but for the long-term prospects of these Wildcats, it's necessary.

Through two games of the 2012 season, 22 players have already seen the field, and 16 for at least 40 minutes. To give an idea of the contrast with last season, there were only 21 players on the roster in 2011. With 32 players on the team to start the season, Lipsitz had as many players on his bench for the season opener as on the entire 2011 team.

Based on performance in practice, the majority of his players deserve playing time. As 2012 wears on, Lipsitz wouldn't mind it if he keeps playing upwards of 20 players a game. He also wouldn't mind if a shorter rotation of, say, 15 emerges. Ultimately, it will probably end up somewhere in between.

"As the season progresses, I don't expect to play 22 players every game," Lipsitz said. "I just want that many players with experience."

The next chance to build more of that experience comes this weekend as UK hosts the Tropical Smoothie Invitational. The Cats will face UNC-Greensboro at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, then Southeast Missouri at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. The event will also include the Louisville Cardinals, whom UK won't take on this weekend, but will next Friday in Louisville.

"It's nice to be good hosts and it's nice to bring people here that have great programs and coaches that are good friends," Lipsitz said. "It's fun rivalries and we are looking forward to it."

This season's Tropical Smoothie Invitational features the same four teams as last year, but the other squads in the field will have plenty of new faces and names to learn when facing the Wildcats. UK prominently features a highly touted 15-member freshman class.

Lipsitz has been a head coach at the Division I level for over seven years now, but he has never had a class like this one. A testament to their talent, 10 of the newcomers have already seen the field just two games into the season.

So, is Lipsitz coddling the most highly ranked recruits he's ever coached?

Not so much.

"I called a few freshmen in the office this week and asked, 'How does it feel to be exposed every day?' " Lipsitz said.

Lipsitz's goal is to make training sessions more of a challenge than any game will ever be. He wants players to be tested, both mentally and physically, and the talented depth of his team allows him to do that every single day.

As for the freshmen Lipsitz put on the spot in his office this week, they seem to be handling it just fine.

"Their reaction was incredibly positive and talked about how they wanted to be pushed," Lipsitz said. "That's why we recruited them."

From the first day of preseason, Lipsitz has raved about the overall competitiveness of his team. Freshmen haven't hesitated to take it to upperclassmen and the upperclassmen have consistently responded.

That doesn't mean UK is close to being a finished product on the field. The Wildcats are out to a perfect start through two games, but have often been out of sync offensively, so far managing just one goal that has not been scored on a corner or free kick. The Cats have maintained possession for the majority of the 180 minutes, but converting possession into chances on goal has been a struggle.

With six goals in 2011, junior Caitlin Landis is UK's leading returning scorer. She has just one point through two games, but Lipsitz isn't worried about that. Landis now is joined on the first-team UK attack by forwards Cara Ledman and Kelli Hubly and attacking midfielder Olivia Jester.

"(Landis) is one who is a fantastic player and one that wants to just do her job," Lipsitz said. "She's not allowed to do that anymore with three freshmen. She has to lead and it's very uncomfortable."

That's where practice and UK's depth come in.

The primary focus in training this week has been on the "personality" of the UK attack, with Landis being asked to step up as the emotional leader of the group. The work started in drills with fewer players, which is where it would have had to stop last season. Limited by numbers, the Wildcats couldn't hold full 11 vs. 11 drills in practice. Now, 11 vs. 11 has become Lipsitz's laboratory.

"I think we can fix a lot of our issues without playing 11 v 11 but in the end we can never be sure how much better it's gotten until we test it," Lipsitz said. "We can work in small numbers but we want to see it. The nice thing this week is we have been working on our attack. We could work on offense versus defense all we want but until we get into 11 v 11 will those smaller concepts that we restrict their time and space to make them play faster. I feel like we get to learn more about our team earlier in the week instead of waiting until Friday or Sunday."

This weekend, it will be the fans' turn to see the results.

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