Last season marked the first time since joining Conference USA in 2005, that the University of Kentucky men's soccer team missed out on the league tournament. The program had earned a berth into the postseason tournament in its first six years before seeing its streak snapped a year ago.
This season, the Wildcats find themselves back in the conference tournament with a chance to extend their 2012 a while longer under first-year head coach Johan Cedergren. Kentucky did just that on Wednesday evening as the No. 5 seeded Cats, ousted the No. 4 seeded Memphis Tigers, 1-0 in the first round of the C-USA tournament in Hoover, Ala.
The match was a struggle all night for the two squads as they battled to a scoreless first half. Senior Jacob Kemper gave the Wildcats a jolt of energy in the 75th minute as he blasted a shot from 30 yards out, netting his first career goal and moving UK on to the second round.
The goal was much-needed for the Cats as they have been searching for offensive production after going through an unfortunate slump over the last week. Kentucky had gone 8-2-1 in its previous 11 contests and carried a second place conference record of 4-1-1 heading into the final two matches of the regular season. UK looked to be in great position to earn a first-round bye and possibly even winning the regular season title.
However, Kentucky fell 1-0 at home in back-to-back games to UCF and South Carolina and dropped to the fifth seed in C-USA. What seemed to be a confident group heading into postseason play, had suddenly hit a wall and was searching for answers.
It was evident early on in Wednesday evening's bout who the more poised team was. Memphis, who had just come off three consecutive wins including a victory over the league's top team, SMU, came out and was a bit more loose than the Cats. Nonetheless, UK fought off the early charge from the Tigers and was able to eventually settle in.
"Our team played really, really well," Cedergren said. "(Memphis) had two great wins to get into the tournament and you could tell the first 15-20 minutes that there was a very confident team that we were playing. Our last two results didn't go the way we wanted and we were a little unsure of ourselves but we slowly but surely worked our way into the game."
The win was sweet revenge for Kentucky, who tied Memphis 2-2 in their C-USA opener on Sept. 30 at the UK Soccer Complex. Yes the match resulted in a tie and the Wildcats were awarded a point, but Cedergren was not happy with the way his squad came out and played that game, especially in the first half.
Wednesday's result proved to be a different story as the game was a combined effort from the entire team. Kemper's goal was the difference, but the defense held off every Memphis charge. Goalkeeper Jack Van Arsdale recorded a career-high six saves, including four key denials in the second half. After earning a starting role early int the season, the junior has stepped up and been a key contributor to the Wildcats' success this season with tremendous play, coming up with clutch saves in several games this season.
"I think Jack is a kid that when we came in we weren't sure about and he's responded," Cedergren said. "We brought in a really good freshman goalkeeper and Jack said, 'I'm not giving up this job, it's mine,' and he's worked really hard in practice and he's made some huge saves."
Kemper recorded his first career goal in 57 games played at Kentucky. It has been a long time coming for the senior who Cedergren says "bleeds blue." For Kemper and the rest of the seniors, they did not want this to be the final game of the season.
"It literally means so much," Kemper said. "I feel like I have put so much of my heart into this team for four years. We have had so many struggles in the past, especially our senior class. This is our only year with Johan and the staff. It just means everything, I can't even describe the feeling. Just awesome."
Kentucky moves on to the semifinals to face No. 1 seeded SMU on Friday, Nov. 9. Like Memphis, UK will get a rematch with the Mustangs, who defeated the Cats, 2-0 on Oct. 6 in Dallas, Texas. Kentucky fell in the contest but Cedergren truly believes his team played one of their best games that night.
"I think up until 60-65 minutes we felt we had them under
pretty good control," Cedergren said. "They were dangerous but so were we and
then we gave up a penalty and just crumbled from there. I think we are really
excited about getting a rematch with the league's best team and of course we
respect them, but we don't fear them and I think the way that we played today,
we can play with anyone in the country."