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Pope's offensive emergence key to women's soccer streak

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Stuart Pope (Chet White, UK Athletics) Stuart Pope (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky women's soccer team's current seven-match winning streak has been catalyzed largely by the offensive output of two players who started the season as defenders.

Kentucky has not lost since former defenders Stuart Pope and Arin Gilliland moved into attacking positions before the third match of the season. Pope leads the team with nine goals. Gilliland ranks second in the nation and leads the Southeastern Conference with eight assists.

While Pope and Gilliland have shown off a lethal chemistry in the field's final third, each has a distinct pedigree.

Gilliland has proven a potent offensive weapon for the Wildcats in the past as she led the team with seven goals in an All-America 2012 season. She started the season starting as a central defender largely because she's likely to play there during her United States National Team call-ups.

Pope's offensive success seemed a novelty early in 2013, but it's been sustained through each of UK's seven straight wins. She has found the back of the net at least once in each victory.

That Pope has been so clinical on the offensive front has been due to expert navigation of largely uncharted territory by a player who plied her trade predominantly in wide areas before this season.

Pope had been UK's most creative player during Kentucky's disappointing offensive performances in the first two games of the season. Pope looked lively playing balls over the top into dangerous areas and making surging runs down the flanks in the first two matches.

Her ability to create from the back proved an idea Lipsitz had been considering since Pope arrived in Lexington more than two years ago.

"To imagine a year or two ago her commanding the middle of the field for 90 minutes, we imagined it but there is no way she could have done it, but now she deserves every accolade that she gets," Lipsitz said.

The move proved to trigger Kentucky's recent excellent run of form, and also appears to have put Pope in her ideal position.

"I was always more of a winger in club," Pope said. "This is really the first time I've played in the No. 10 position, but it feels natural to me. Even when I was out wide as a club player I would pinch in a lot into the hole. It's not really any different than where I've been playing, it's just more freedom."

Pope has scored four game-winning goals since moving into the traditional No. 10 role playing behind the striker in the heart of the UK attack. Pope struck the game-winner in last Friday's SEC-opening win at Auburn off an assist from Gilliland.

Indeed both Pope and Gilliland have shown an excellent rapport having both moved from defense to attacking roles earlier this season. The duo's symbiotic relationship is best illustrated be the fact that four of Pope's goals have been assisted by Gilliland.

"Arin's always had the desire (to score goals) and over the past year I've come into that role so we work well off of each other," Pope said. "We work well off of each other because we both work toward getting a goal. She's very good in pressure situations, whenever she needs help up there we work well together."

No one thing can be attributed to Pope's emergence as one of UK's most important attacking players, but her coach has a hunch where the newfound success started.

"Let's just go there and really say what happened last year," Lipsitz said, "She had zero goals and zero assists so zero points to help us last year. The biggest thing that has changed is her fitness.

"Stuart has always had an amazing mind for the game. She's extremely technical because she was so well-coached growing up so she had it all, but she had to decide to do the work. She decided to do the work and now she has become our playmaker."

Pope is in agreement with her coach: The biggest reason she's gone from no points in 20 games last season to 18 points in half as many so far this year is largely due to her offseason training regime.

"I just changed how hard I wanted to work on my fitness," Pope said. "Last spring was when I really got fit and I carried that through the summer. It changes everything when you don't get tired because you don't mess up technically.

"You don't get tired mentally because you don't get tired physically. Raising the fitness level as much as I did has helped me in all areas of soccer."

Pope had a sort of epiphany in regards to getting into better shape in an unlikely setting: on vacation.

"Last Christmas I went to Australia to visit my sister, and being over there and witnessing a lot of Australians' active lifestyles changed my opinion on everything," Pope said. "It made me start eating better. When I got back I just knew I wanted to work."

Lipsitz has indeed found the right formula during UK's current run and Pope is central to that equation, literally, but he did not always have the easiest time getting through to his star midfielder.

"She would be the first one to tell you that she did not like me her first two years here, and I don't apologize for it at all," Lipsitz said. "We always knew that Stu had tremendous potential. One of the greatest conflicts in a coach/player relationship is when the coach feels that a player is not reaching her potential."

Pope changed her nutrition plan, her offseason training and even her position. Still, an attitude change was necessary before she could integrate all her changes in preparation into on-field performance.

"My first two years in college I just had a bad attitude," Pope said. "I was always blaming other people for my mistakes. Last spring I decided to turn it around. I changed my diet, my fitness and my attitude to be more coachable. I think that has all just come out on the field this season."

The personal changes Pope undertook prior to the season and even some in-season adjustments have put her in the playing form of her life. If she can keep that form up -- which will be a challenge as UK begins its first two-match SEC weekend on Friday at home against Arkansas -- the sky is the limit for an already-effective offense that goes through a player who started the season as a defender.

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