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Women's soccer setting new standard with another NCAA home game

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UK played an NCAA first-round game in front of 1,065 fans in 2011. The Wildcats will host for the second year in a row on Friday at 7 p.m. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) UK played an NCAA first-round game in front of 1,065 fans in 2011. The Wildcats will host for the second year in a row on Friday at 7 p.m. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Last season, it had been since 1999 that the Kentucky women's soccer team had earned the right to host in the NCAA Tournament. But in Jon Lipsitz's third year as head coach, the Wildcats did just that.

After another successful 2012 campaign, the Cats ensured there would not be another decade-plus-long wait for the next time the postseason would come to Lexington.

UK learned late on Monday afternoon it would begin its run in the NCAAs on the same field where Senior Night festivities were held less than two weeks ago. Having done it in back-to-back seasons, the message is clear.

"To do it the second year in a row, this is our standard now," Lipsitz said. "This is who we want to be every year."

The Cats don't want things to be quite the same as last year though. This time around, they want to advance. In last year's first round, UK lost in dramatic fashion to Washington State, falling in penalty kicks in front of a crowd of 1,065, third largest among the 32 first-round sites.

The players can remember what the atmosphere was like at the UK Soccer Complex last November. When they take on Ohio Valley Conference Tournament champion UT Martin (13-5-3) at 7 p.m. ET on Friday, they expect a similar one.

"It was so hard to hear anything on the field, even a teammate next to you," senior Alyssa Telang said. "It's going to be really exciting. Big Blue Nation is awesome."

The Wildcats have set reaching this point as a goal from the beginning of the season, but their RPI of 33 left their bid to be one of 32 first-round hosts in doubt. In the end, marquee wins over Florida and Tennessee made the difference.

"We feel like we've earned the bid," Lipsitz said. "We worked very hard. From the beginning of the year, we started keeping notes on our big wins and we started talking about the need for our big wins so the NCAA committee would see that."

Now, the team is looking for a few more.

It starts with the Skyhawks on Saturday. For all of their accomplishments, members of UK's senior class have not yet won a postseason match. Changing that would be a fitting sendoff for a group that Lipsitz credits for transforming the culture of his program.

"We had the chance last year and we fell short," senior Natalie Horner said. "This year, we've been taking it one game at a time, but this game is by far the biggest game. We're so excited to be playing and we have a lot of work to do this week, but winning this game would be awesome for us."

The coaching staff has long been preparing to put the players in position to do just that. Recognizing UK's talent, Lipsitz and his assistants have been quietly compiling scouting reports on potential NCAA opponents for the past month.

"One of the joys in coaching this team this year is we knew from pretty early on that we had the talent to make the NCAAs," Lipsitz said. "And we knew early on that if we just fulfilled our destiny, if we just believed in one another, that we would be at this point. It's allowed the coaches to do a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure we were ready for this moment."

Even so, the process of learning about UT Martin is only just beginning. Lipsitz will be compiling the book on the Skyhawks Monday night before hitting the practice field with his team on Tuesday. Regardless of what he uncovers, the focus in training will be primarily internal.

"The number one thing is we have to take care of ourselves," Lipsitz said. "Obviously we'll get as much information on the opponent as we can, but the most important thing is take care of ourselves. The most important thing is to play the brand of soccer that we believe in, for us to play our best and then there's nothing more we can control."

What that means is plenty of work over the next few days. Lipsitz was interviewed about the NCAA bid in front of his players and when he was asked what this week will entail, he answered of "Great, fun," with a wry smile. His words were meant by knowing laughter, suggesting the Cats are well aware of what is ahead of them.

"It's a pretty simple choice at this time of year," Lipsitz said. "Either you've turned in your gear and you're doing nothing or you're working your tail off to win another game."

UK will take hard work in heartbeat.

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