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Women's soccer relishing opportunity to host NCAA Tournament

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Given all the adversity the UK women's soccer team has faced in recent weeks and months, Jon Lipsitz and the Wildcats aren't taking much for granted these days.

So the Cats expressed a great deal of appreciation when they learned they will host the first round of the NCAA Tournament vs. Ohio State on Friday.

"If you would have told me before the season started, the injuries that we would have had in the spring, over the summer and during the season, and we would be sitting in this spot, I would have told you that there is absolutely no way," Lipsitz said. "I am so proud of this group. When I look at the list of programs around the country with tremendous support and fantastic support that were not selected, I think that says so much about the work that we have done."

The Wildcats have endured multiple injuries to key players throughout the year. The run of bad luck seemed to start when senior captain Ashley VanLandingham went out with a season-ending knee injury in the spring. Since then, it has seemed as though as soon as one player stepped forward to pick up slack for a sidelined contributor another key Wildcat has gone down.

"You have a group of young women here that have fought through everything," Lipsitz said. "Whenever anything went wrong we came back and played another game. Then something else would go wrong and we would come back and just keep playing the games. I would have been stunned before the season to ever have imagined us having gone through what we have, and still be selected to the NCAA Tournament."

And the surreal feel of Monday's NCAA Tournament bid announcement was not limited to the UK coach. For UK's veteran nucleus, the thought of a third straight appearance on college soccer's biggest stage could only be considered a dream when the Cats arrived in Lexington.

"As seniors, we didn't have any hope of making the NCAA Tournament during our freshman year," goalie Kayla King said. "We were lucky to go to the SEC Tournament. Now to be a senior and to have the privilege to be on a great team that has made the NCAA Tournament the last three years is difficult to describe. The NCAA Tournament doesn't really compare to anything else, and to host is huge."

Yet as exciting and momentous as Monday's announcement was, Lipsitz and his team are not satisfied with just making it. They are, in fact, so unsatisfied that they've been training with an eye on the upcoming game for more than a week already.

"I said to the team about 10 days ago that it's two weeks of preseason to get ready for what is now this upcoming Friday night," Lipsitz said. "Even the training sessions we have had since we have gotten back from the SEC Tournament have been fantastic. Yesterday was one of the most intense training sessions we have had.

"We have gone back to the basics. We have gone back to preaching what we have to do to be successful. We started talking about a two-week preseason instead of suddenly finding out on Monday who we play, and from there trying to prepare. This way we have already been preparing. We have been getting ready for this moment, and we will play our best because of that."

The Wildcats preparations will continue, now with specific considerations for Ohio State, but UK will also enter Friday night with the experience from the program's first NCAA Tournament victory last season.

The Wildcats will be hoping it will pay dividends come Friday.

"Everything we take is experience," Lipsitz said. "We will rely on that. We will rely on our senior leadership more than anything to get us ready. Every single thing we have gone through in five years helps us all get ready. You don't have experience in the NCAAs until you are there.

"It's one of those things that is so difficult. How do you get experience without being there? The answer is you don't. We learned so much from playing Washington State two years ago. Tying that game and losing on penalty kicks really left a bad taste in our mouths. We all wanted to be the first last year. We wanted to win the first game for UK in the NCAA Tournament."

Lipsitz and his players continue to look back on the 2012 NCAA Tournament win as a stepping stone for the program, but they have also spoken all season about wanting to continue moving forward.

"Now it's not about being the first," Lipsitz said. "It's about achieving to the best of our ability. I think that comes from experience."

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