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UK women's soccer expectations reaching new heights in 2013

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UK Women's Soccer captains Arin Gilliland, Kayla King and Ashley VanLandingham. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK women's soccer captains Arin Gilliland, Kayla King and Ashley VanLandingham. (Chet White, UK Athletics)

Coming off what was by all accounts the best season in the 21-year history of Kentucky women's soccer in 2012, junior captain Arin Gilliland doesn't mince words when it comes to looking forward.

"Every year you step out on the field at a university you want to be better than the year before," Gilliland said. "When we bring the freshmen and the newcomers in we set a standard for them. The standard this year is to get further than we were last year."

The Wildcats reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2012 for the first time in school history on a dramatic extra-time golden goal at home. As important and emotional as that breakthrough was, matching that success won't be enough in 2013.

Such is the way head coach Jon Lipsitz operates. 

"We are continuing to try to move the group forward," the fifth-year coach said. "We're continuing to challenge them, as we always do as a part of our culture, to get better every day, which gives us a chance to every year do better than the year before. That's part of how we've been building this program: day by day."

Fight from day one

The 2013 Wildcats will waste no time measuring themselves against the caliber of squad they're likely to face come NCAA Tournament time. UK travels to play a team ranked as high as No. 10 nationally in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Friday for the season opener.

"We gave them a huge challenge at the beginning of this year," Lipsitz said. "We're going to play Wake Forest, who is a top-15 team. They are going to be (ranked) a lot higher than that at the end of the year. I know their roster very well, I know (Wake Forest head coach) Tony (da Luz) well, so I wanted to start there right away and challenge us."

The UK players have proven themselves willing to embrace any obstacle, even when that challenge entails long road trips to face the best. The Wildcats chose the term "fight" as their official team slogan for the 2013 season. Given the opportunity to face elite competition, the Wildcats are more than eager to step inside the lines and put their mantra into practice, wherever it may be.

"This first game against Wake Forest is going to (help) decide our season," Gilliland said. "It's really going to give us the push we need to see where we stand when we get to the SEC (portion of the season)."

Indeed Kentucky's unprecedented expectations aren't just coming from within the team. The league's coaches picked UK to finish second in the SEC Eastern Division this season, the team's highest predicted finish since Lipsitz took charge of the program five years ago.

The Wildcats aren't paying attention to voices outside the team going into the season though. Instead, they're looking forward to testing the work they've put in this offseason right off the bat.

"If we are going to achieve in the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, we've got to find out from the beginning what our strengths and weaknesses are," Lipsitz said. "This is the way we do that. I believe the players come here to want to play a great schedule, and so what a great way to start the season,"

Squad takes shape

At first glance, the 2013 UK defense might look to be a glaring weakness. Two starters from a season ago graduated and both were center backs. Contrary to initial analysis, however, Lipsitz considers his defense among the team's strongest units.

Lipsitz's confidence is inspired largely by the fact that his two active captains - senior goalie Kayla King and central defender Gilliland - will ply their trade at the heart of the defense. 

Instead the UK coach's biggest concern heading into 2013 is where the goals will come from.

"Even though we lost those two starters it's a very new identity this year," Lipsitz said. "We're still working on that. We have to challenge them to find out where we are. I know that we're going to be very tough at the back with Kayla in the net and Arin at center back. 

"I think we're going to be extremely strong there. What we're finding out in training is how we're going to score goals."

Despite Lipsitz's concern, UK does return plenty of attacking firepower.

Including Gilliland - who played forward for much of the 2012 season, but will start 2013 as a defender - UK's entire 2012 front line returns in 2013. Gilliland, Kelli Hubly and Caitlin Landis contributed a combined 17 goals and 16 assists in 2012. 

Still Lipsitz will be the first to tell you a soccer coach is always looking for more goals. He will have plenty of options when he looks for more players to chip in when it comes to the goal count. Seven of the nine the starters returning to the lineup are underclassmen.

Leading the way ... from the back line

Lipsitz has established a culture of constantly challenging his players, but he's not the only one in the program doing so. He relies on his team's veterans to hammer home his message throughout the team, especially with so many underclassmen on a young squad.

In 2013 those responsibilities will fall to seniors King and Ashley VanLandingham and junior Gilliland. Lipsitz' described the process of selecting his standard-bearers as "a no-brainer."

Each of the three will take on different responsibilities, which - at least in Lipsitz's opinion - should work out because all captains have different leadership styles.

King has a unique vantage point of everything occurring across the pitch in front of her, and like many goal keepers, she uses that to her advantage as an on-field leader. 

"We try to keep (the young players) accountable," King said. "Jon has stressed details, as he always does. I know if they don't listen to those details it's also my job to tell them to step it up."

But King also serves as the team's inspirational leader both vocally and by example. Wildcat players and fans alike can briefly look at King's college career path and take encouragement.

The senior goalie started at UK as a walk-on and by her head coach's accounts, not a very good one at that. Following two years of not seeing much game action, she decided to change her ways. 

King started that change by focusing on her fitness.

She invested in the staff's workout and diet regimen and, perhaps more importantly, committed to what her coaches were telling her to do while in the goal. The changes paid off in 2012 as she started 16 of 18 matches and emerged as one of the top goalkeepers in the SEC.

As important as her vocal leadership will be in 2013, UK's players will also have King's overall path within the program as a source of inspiration.

While the Wildcats may look at King's path as an unlikely route to success with Gilliland they can follow a player who performed throughout her career at the lofty levels expected of her.

And she sets quite the standard. 

Considered one of the nation's top players entering the season, Gilliland has carried the flag for UK at some of the highest levels of the game. The All American's experience includes having been called up to the United States U20 and U23 National Teams as well as having trained this past summer with world-class players like Alex Morgan at the Portland Thorns.

"Arin Gilliland is only a junior, and it's rare for us to have junior captains because a lot of loneliness goes along with being a captain," Lipsitz said. "You are isolated when you're a captain. You have to hold people to standards, but Arin is our standards-bearer. She is the example for achievement. 

"She's also our fiery leader. She's the one who on game day will get into you if it's not happening. Arin has learned to have more of a gentle style at times, but I don't want her to change. She is who she is, and if you're not working as hard as she is, you're going to know about it."

Gilliland will be able to rely on her vast top-level experience as she steps into a heightened leadership role. 

Kentucky will also look to VanLandingham, who will miss the entire season with a knee injury, as a captain.

"She has this unique ability to lead by pushing and by cheerleading," Lipsitz said. "There's a gentle balance between that because people need someone being their cheerleader to support them no matter what. Typically people are either one or the other, but she has this unique way of giving you a kick in the butt while she pats you on the back."

By her coach's estimation the senior defender - in spite of a hard-luck injury situation - will still be able to bridge the gap between King and Gilliland's leadership styles. It will just be something she does from the sidelines this season.

Training to face the challenge

The Wildcats have made no bones about the high expectations they set for themselves for 2013. UK is facing a long and tough stretch of hurdles, beginning the first weekend of the season, so they're being smart about how they prepare.

In fact, they're taking a scientific approach.

So-called "High Performance" training, which focuses on sports science to devise the right intensity to impart in workout regimens, has become a major topic of conversation across Lexington in recent months. 

The new UK football coaching staff's High Performance program is making in waves across college football, but Lipsitz and his staff have relied on similar principals of player development for the past four seasons.

Wildcat players rarely go through their paces without being tracked by heart-rate monitors, GPS units and overhead camera systems. The cutting-edge technologies give the staff tons of data, which helps them manage the team based more on facts than outward appearances or gut feelings. 

"Our strength and conditioning staff is amazing here," Lipsitz said. "The involvement they let me have creates a very special relationship. I trust them, and they listen to me. It's their job to implement it. 

"We like to individualize everything here for players' development, it really clicked with us and it's made a big difference."

King may be the prime example of that difference in action. 

When she began to work on improving her fitness, maintaining key factors for effective goalkeeping was paramount. But holding on to the skills needed to be a good goalie while working to get in better shape is easier said than done. 

Conventional wisdom dictates a goalie should avoid endurance activities. Such exercises are often detrimental to the short burst-style workouts designed to develop the explosiveness expected of quality net-minder. 

That has not been the case with King's offseason training regimen. Instead the UK senior has thrown in multi-mile runs every week to build a base fitness level. Indeed the data shows that the right endurance work does not harm athletic explosiveness as mainstream thinking may suggest.

Such outside-the-box thinking has become a hallmark of the UK women's soccer strength and conditioning program.

"I've done a huge amount of research and what I don't want is our players going on these hard long runs because it absolutely kills their fast twitch muscle fibers," Lipsitz said. "We want someone like Kayla training either at about 60 percent heart rate or above 90 percent. That middle ground does nothing for her.

"We want her going out for long slow runs, which just deepens her base fitness. When it's time to go hard the next day she's in what we call the 'red zone,' which is 90-to-100 percent heart rate for her explosiveness. It's a balance. We devised something that works for her."

Kentucky will need to continue striking that balance starting Friday. UK will play two matches nearly 400 miles apart in three days this weekend, quite the undertaking in a sport as physically demanding as soccer. 

Yet just like all the other challenges they've faced so far, the 2013 Wildcats expect to meet the task head-on. 

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