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Gilliland's return to forward paying dividends

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Arin Gilliland scored her team-leading sixth goal in a 1-0 victory over South Carolina on Friday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Arin Gilliland scored her team-leading sixth goal in a 1-0 victory over South Carolina on Friday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
With his team in mired in a three-game losing streak, Jon Lipsitz was looking for a spark. Kentucky had scored just two goals in over 300 minutes, spanning five games in Southeastern Conference play.

The Wildcats needed offense, so Lipsitz naturally turned to his back line.

Arin Gilliland had played outside back through the season's first 14 matches. She had excelled in a defensive role, going forward when the situation called for it. The versatile sophomore had four goals and four assists from her back position, but Lipsitz believed her talents would be put to better use attacking full time.

"She's a special player," Lipsitz said. "We knew we moved her up top we needed help up there. It wasn't that other people weren't doing well, we were just missing something."

They found it.

Gilliland assisted on the game-winning goal in her first game at right forward against Tennessee before scoring the decisive tally the next time out against Georgia. Most recently, she helped lift her women's soccer team to a third straight win, scoring the lone goal as Kentucky (11-5-1, 6-4-1 SEC) defeated South Carolina (5-8-4, 2-6-3 SEC) by a score of 1-0 on Friday night.

"What a coincidence that is," Lipsitz said with a sarcastic smile. "Somehow Arin goes up top and is involved in every goal. I can't figure out. I don't know how that happens."

It may seem a bit of an oddity for a defensive player to so seamlessly transition to attack, but it should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the Lexington native in her two seasons as Wildcat.

Gilliland started her freshman season as a forward, playing there every game until deep into the season. Ironically, her move to outside back came against Tennessee almost a year to the day before she returned to forward on Oct. 12 against those same Lady Volunteers as a sophomore.

"He told me one day I was going to start up there and when I did it kind of gave all the forwards some energy and gave us what we needed," Gilliland said. "From there we've been building and it's been really good."

Gilliland's goal on this chilly Friday night came when she received the ball along the left side in the 37th minute of an otherwise sluggish first half for the Cats. She beat a defender, fired a low shot that was deflected by a Gamecock defender and into the near side of the net.

She can't quite put her finger on why her transition to forward has been so seamless, but Gilliland does have a couple ideas.

"I have a really aggressive mentality when I'm on the field," Gilliland said. "I think that's pretty big. When I get up there, I have a feel for the ball and when I have it, I want to keep it. When I do give it up, I want to get it back. When you have a mentality like that, it's easy to get at goal."

Her athleticism and skill have a little something to do with it as well. Those are the kinds of things Lipsitz and his coaching staff are constantly seeking.

"It's something that we do a huge amount in recruiting," Lipsitz said. "We look for players that can play in multiple places. We try to recruit soccer players rather than just people that are experts at one position."

If not for a player like Cara Ledman having comparable versatility to Gilliland, the move wouldn't even be possible. Ledman has spent the majority of her freshman season as an attacker, but when Lipsitz called on her to switch with Gilliland and take over at right back, she and the UK defense as a whole didn't miss a beat.

"Part of our ability to do that has to do with how our back line is playing," Lipsitz said. "Let's recognize also that, as she's moved up, we've had three shutouts without her in the back. It's about everybody doing their job."

In the second half, the Gilliland-led UK offense looked dangerous, but the Cats couldn't net an insurance goal. With the score stuck at 1-0 in the 83rd minute, Lipsitz moved Gilliland back to right back to protect the narrow lead. She made a handful of solid plays to preserve the victory, which clinched a spot in the SEC Tournament for UK.

Gilliland will likely start at forward for the final two games of the regular season, but she will surely be needed both up top and at the back the rest of the way. Others might prefer to play the spot that afford more opportunities on goal, but not Gilliland. She's just looking for a challenge.

"If we're playing a team that has really good forwards, I like to play against them," Gilliland said. "If we're down or something like that, I like to play up top and try to get my team back in it."

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