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Senior Night far from a farewell for this women's soccer group

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Senior defender Natalie Horner helped UK to a 3-0 shutout of Vanderbilt on Senior Night. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Senior defender Natalie Horner helped UK to a 3-0 shutout of Vanderbilt on Senior Night. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Three years ago, a group of Kentucky freshmen watched Senior Night festivities. The players on the field for their final home game were fairly certain that no postseason berth lay ahead, that the end of their college career was at hand.

"That Senior Night was actually really rough," senior defender Alyssa Telang said. "We lost 4-1 to Ole Miss, but those seniors were here last weekend on Alumni Weekend and it was cool to see them. It's crazy to think of the freshmen that we were then and the seniors we are now."

Their own Senior Night may have seemed a lifetime away back for Alyssa Telang, Kirsten Robinson, Brooke Keyes, Cassie Ransdell and Natalie Horner - then spending a season a redshirt following her transfer from Michigan - but on Thursday night, it arrived.

The circumstances, though, were quite different from back in 2009.

Instead of reminiscing about their careers on Senior Night, this group was more concerned about looking forward. These seniors have too much still to play for.

"I don't think that it's really different tonight for the seniors than any other night," UK head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "They know what we're playing for and they're the ones that decided that we weren't going to have any craziness in the locker room before the game."

By "craziness," Lipsitz is referring to giving presents to the seniors, something customarily occurs in the locker room immediately before the game. UK's five seniors opted instead to move any gift-giving to the morning of the game, clearing the Cats' schedule and their minds for an important match against Vanderbilt.

"That takes a lot of focus and puts it on the seniors and doing it for them," Telang said. "But our class, we wanted it to be about soccer and our team, not us."

Entering the 2012 regular-season finale, UK had already locked up a bye in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. With a top-25 RPI, these Wildcats were playing more for the right to host in the NCAA Tournament than just to make it.

By defeating Vanderbilt 3-0, UK (13-5-1, 8-4-1 SEC) closed out SEC play on a five-match winning streak, the longest in the regular season since 1999. The win also secured at least a five seed for UK in the SEC Tournament and means the Cats will face a rematch with Missouri in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.

Junior Caitlin Landis delivered the game-winning goal in the 52nd minute following a scoreless first half. Minutes later, she added her third goal of the season. Freshman Kennedy Collier would score the first goal of her career in the 74th minute for the final margin.

Telang and these seniors will take their experience over the one they witnessed as rookies any day.

"It's almost like a relief because we know we're good, but we've got to continue to know that we have a target on our back," Telang said.

Painting these seniors as lucky to be in a better situation would be unfair, because they have been instrumental in transforming UK from a 5-9-4 team in 2009 to one that is thinking about playing - and advancing - in the postseason.

"It's so hard for me to put into words who these seniors are as human beings," Lipsitz said. "You can see that they're great student-athletes, but they're just special people."

Typical on-field Senior Night festivities preceded the game, complete with flowers and hugs and family members, but the seniors got another nice moment in the waning minutes. With all five on the field, Lipsitz substituted for them as one big group, embracing each on her way to the bench as the crowd cheered.

There will be plenty of time for more such emotional displays once the season is over, but these Cats are all business right now. They now will prepare for the SEC Tournament, which begins on Wednesday, with an eye on enhancing their resume for what comes after.

With no match this weekend, the first step in that process is taking it easy for a couple days.

"A lot of rest, a whole lot of rest," Lipsitz said. "I'm going to take off recruiting, the team's going to get some rest and then we'll come back together and we'll build toward a great game on Wednesday."

With momentum on their side and a steady senior class to guide them, it would be unwise to bet against the Wildcats.

"Ever since that loss against Ole Miss (on Oct. 7) I think that we've come out and we've competed extremely hard every day in practice," Telang said. "It's not just winning and losing in games. It's winning and losing in practice. Every drill is winning or losing and it's become so competitive that we get wins in games."

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