Courtney Raetzman rises for a header vs. Ohio State
Four minutes rarely amounts to much in the lives of the 18-22-year olds who make up the teams remaining in the NCAA Women's Soccer Tournament, but in 2013 that amount of time served as a blessing in disguise for Kentucky.
The Wildcats became a group of walking wounded late in the regular season due to the piling up of injury upon injury. Come last Friday's first-round game, the Wildcats had to recall a player who was thought to be out for the season: Courtney Raetzman.
In fact the UK staff had applied to officially end her season so as to grant her an entire additional season of eligibility due to injury hardship, but NCAA rules denied the request.
The technicality? She had played four minutes too many to qualify for a medical redshirt.
Those four minutes may have seemed trivial if not cruel earlier this season, but as it turned out they were key in allowing the Wildcats to advance to Friday's 10:30 p.m. ET second-round matchup at UCLA.
Raetzman was a revelation in UK's first-round victory over Ohio State.
Her performance was all-the-more impressive given she was wearing what looked to be an extremely restrictive brace, apparently to protect against reinjury.
"We've got a gutsy kid in Courtney Raetzman that was back," head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "I mean, Courtney has been out since the seventh game of the year. She actually played four minutes too much for us to be able to look at redshirting her this year, so everything that she did was, I'm going to find a way back, I'm going to find a way, I'm going to get back on the field.
"And a week ago, she wasn't even really going full-go in training. Just two days ago, she was finally cleared to train, tackle, do everything. For that kid to come back in and play like that, it's unbelievable."
The impact of Raetzman's play cannot be overstated, and her return helped UK in tactical terms, but the comeback also was also helpful in ways less quantifiable. When a player works that hard and gets back onto the pitch so quickly and so effectively, teammates apparently take a great deal of inspiration.
"Anytime you get a player back on the field from injury, it's great," All-SEC forward Arin Gilliland said. "We're a family here and being able to have someone on the field that really makes a difference once again is a great feeling and it brings so much energy back to the field and it gets everyone excited."
The team's excitement at Raetzman's return translated into goals galore and a win, but similar stories have been widespread across the team in 2013. Such unexpected stories of perseverance seem necessary for a team like UK, which has lost so much talent because of injury to be able to make it as far as UK has.
Caitlin Landis's 2013 journey is yet another example of a player who spent part of the season on the periphery of Lipsitz's first choice lineup only to play a pivotal role once the NCAA Tournament came around.
Landis, a senior, began the season by losing a starting place which she had held for much of her career, but like many other Wildcats, injuries to others forced her back into heavy playing time.
Apparently the adversity brought out a new level in Landis's game, which was on full display when the forward opened the scoring in the 3-1 win over Ohio State.
"The way she sees the field and her ability to play other players in now is something she didn't have before," Lipsitz said earlier this season. "She was not starting early in the year, and we made some adjustments ... She has put a stranglehold on it ever since. I hope she feels like I was totally wrong when I wasn't starting her early.
"I hope she looks at me every day and thinks, 'You are an idiot,' because I want my players to want to be on the field and think they deserve to be. She was ready when her number was called and she's been ready ever since."
And then there's the case of Ashley VanLandingham, whose season has in many ways been best exemplified by not even four minutes, but only a matter of seconds.
The senior captain started the trend of UK women's soccer players suffering untimely injuries as she was declared out for the season with a knee problem last spring.
Nonetheless she was named a team captain, and served this season as UK's loudest player offering support from the sidelines during games and as one of the Wildcats' most influential leaders.
VanLandingham's symbolic minutes came on senior day, when she started the game with the opening kickoff being played out of bounds before she showed her rehab progress by jogging off for an immediate substitute. The move was a nice in-game touch of ceremony, which served as a sort of reward for a player who had given so much to the program.
"I had recruited Ashley to go to Charlotte when I was coach there as she is from North Carolina," Lipsitz said. "What a leap of faith on her part to come play here at Kentucky. That's special, but as much fun as it was to watch her on the field her progression as a leader this year despite not playing is the most special thing of all."
The senior captain's one minute of play this season had almost no direct impact on the events, which transpired on the field during UK's game that day or any other wins. Yet, just like Raetzman's return or Landis' ability to be a team-first player while on the bench, the ceremonial start represented off-field work, which helped UK in ways less visible but still important.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Nov. 17:
Women's soccer: Arin Gilliland
Arin Gilliland, who is a MAC Hermann Award Watch List candidate, scored the game-winning goal in the 53rd minute, collecting her team-leading 12th goal of the season on a breakaway slotted far post. Gilliland also tabbed an assist on Kentucky's third goal from, freshman Zoe Swift, for her fourth multi-point game of the season, which also leads the team and ties for the SEC lead.
Women's soccer: Caitlin Landis
Caitlin Landis scored the game-opening goal in the 50th minute, putting home a rebound off a re-fire from a corner kick. The goal for the senior was her fourth of the season as she put Kentucky up 1-0 early.
Volleyball: Alexandra Morgan
Senior Alexandra Morgan had a tremendous week for the Wildcats as UK went 2-0 with a pair of sweeps on the road at Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Morgan opened the weekend by leading UK to a season-high 19 blocks. The Birmingham, Ala., native had a career-high 11 rejections which marked the most blocks by a Wildcat in a single match in the 25-point rally scoring era. She also contributed seven kills on a .438 hitting clip, as UK as a unit only managed to hit at a .186 clip. Against Ole Miss, she again led the squad with six total blocks to run her total to 17 for the two matches at a rate of a stunning 2.83 per set. She added six kills on .400 hitting. For the weekend, Morgan went errorless with 13 kills at a .419 clip and registered 4.00 points per set, just behind Whitney Billings' 4.08 per set who plays in every rotation.
Men's basketball: Julius Randle
Recorded a double-double in both games this week. He's just the fifth player in program history to begin the season with four-straight double-doubles, and the first since Reggie Hanson achieved the feat to begin the 1989-90 season.
His 27-point, 13-rebound effort against Michigan State gave him a third-straight 20-point, 10-rebound game to become the first Division I freshman to open with three-straight 20-10 games since Kansas State's Michael Beasley in 2007.
His 54 rebounds to begin his career are the most of any player in the John Calipari era.
Had a career-high two blocks against Robert Morris.
Scored 23 points and had nine rebounds as UK erased a 14-point second half deficit to even the game late in the second half vs. No. 2 Michigan State.
Men's basketball: James Young
Had a break-out offensive weekend for the Wildcats with a career-high 19 points against second-ranked Michigan State
Scored in double-figures in both games this week
Has sunk at least one 3-pointer in all four games this season for UK
Had career-highs of points, rebounds and field goals made against Michigan State
Logged career-highs in assists (3) and steals (2) in a win over Robert Morris
His team having finally broken through five minutes into the second half on a goal by Caitlin Landis, Lipsitz shouted from the bench, "Intensity."
Not willing to settle for a 1-0 lead in Kentucky's NCAA Tournament opener against Ohio State, he demanded more. Lipsitz wanted the Wildcats to go in for the kill.
"That's what I sensed," Lipsitz said. "That it was the moment and it was time and not to let them off the hook."
In less than three minutes, the Cats delivered.
Following through on her coach's sideline direction, Arin Gilliland created a breakaway chance with a tackle at midfield and raced into the box before calmly slotting a shot far post past the outstretch hands of Buckeye keeper Jillian McVicker.
Gilliland's approach in tallying her team-high 11th goal was but one example of the relentlessness Lipsitz wants his players to show.
"I wanted our forwards to have a mentality where you're just assassins," Lipsitz said. "You just refuse to be stopped and you're just going to go and go and go."
On Friday night, they went and went and went.
Each member of the the attacking trio of Gilliland, Landis and Zoe Swift scored a goal in Kentucky's 3-1 win over Ohio State. They fired 19 shots between the three of them and tallied a pair of assists.
"We literally were probably in each other's head is how I felt," Gilliland said. "Anytime I would look up and want them to be in a certain spot, they were there. And I'm sure they felt the exact same way. It was just this connection we had today in the game and it's a soccer player's dream to have that."
From the opening kickoff, the three forwards were firing on all cylinders, but a goal escaped them during the first half. With 12 shots and five corners in the first half, UK dominated everywhere but the place where it counts: the scoreboard.
In the halftime locker room, Lipsitz was sure to point out to the Cats how well they had played. However, he's not a believer that past opportunities serve as any indication that goals are forthcoming.
"It's not going to come unless we make it come," Lipsitz told his team. "It doesn't just happen. We have to make the decision it's going to happen."
After the way UK practiced this week, Lipsitz had little doubt the Cats would make that decision.
"I'm not one for a lot of coach-speak," Lipsitz said, "so when I got interviewed this week I said, 'Look, this is the best week of training we've had. We're really sharp. We've done the work and we've prepared and we're taking care of details and we're ready.' "
Starting last Monday, Lipsitz organized training sessions leading up to the NCAA Tournament as if UK were preparing for its season opener.
"The beginning of the week, we were just getting at it and it felt like another preseason just going after each other and being physical," Landis said.
Swift -- one of a handful of freshmen playing featured roles on an injury-depleted team -- got some personalized coaching during UK's second training camp.
Lipsitz has pushed Swift all season long and she's responded almost all the time, earning All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team honors and scoring nine goals, including the one she had Friday. But during UK's second preseason, Lipsitz refined her role and put Swift back in her comfort zone.
"I think he brought me back in so I could feel more confident," Swift said. "But then I know he's just going to bring me back out of my comfort zone. I'm just getting ready for it."
Swift didn't have to wait long for her first NCAA win, but the same can't be said about the UK program. Last year, the Cats won in the tournament for the first time in program history, prompting an emotional postgame press conference for Lipsitz.
This time around, the feeling was different. Winning on Friday was about living up to expectations.
"Our standards are: We're hosting the first round of the NCAA Tournament, we've earned it and we win," Lipsitz said. "That's our standard now."
Landis and her fellow seniors have played a central role in building the UK program toward reaching that standard. The Cats have played and hosted in the NCAA Tournament three straight years now and advanced to the second round back-to-back times.
The senior forward was briefly willing to reflect on her time at UK, but she's not ready to start using the past tense just yet. Landis is too busy thinking about a matchup with either No. 2 UCLA or San Diego State next Friday.
"Going at it and getting better, it's a fun experience and I'm going to really miss it," Landis said. "But, yeah, we're not done yet."
Arin Gilliland has 11 goals and nine assists entering UK's first-round NCAA Tournament matchup with Ohio State on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Besides being Kentucky's leading goal scorer and primary offensive threat, Arin Gilliland had a well-established role on the team.
Through tough training sessions, the junior star helped keep UK loose with her goofy personality. As Jon Lipsitz pushed the Wildcats to reach their potential, Gilliland was always there to lighten the mood with a friendly jab at her coach.
"I kind of kept everyone laughing," Gilliland said.
But a few weeks ago, Gilliland -- a First Team All-Southeastern Conference performer -- realized she needed to change.
In UK's final regular-season home match on Oct. 27, Stuart Pope -- the yin to Gilliland's yang -- went down. The team's second-leading scorer, Pope would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury that would require reconstructive surgery.
Like Gilliland, Pope had a clearly defined role.
When a stern message needed to be delivered, it was the junior midfielder who spoke up. When the team wasn't as focused at it needed to be, Pope was always there to remind the Cats of their goals and the work it would take to reach them.
In matches, UK would clearly miss Pope's dynamic play in the midfield, but her absence was felt immediately in practice. With their task master gone, the Cats began to flounder.
"We weren't paying attention to the details," Gilliland said. "We weren't doing all the little things that needed to be done that Stuart would get on people about."
With the SEC and NCAA tournaments still ahead, Gilliland decided to put on her serious face.
"When I saw that and Stuart's over on the sideline doing her rehab like she should be and no one was taking initiative, I kind of realized, look, this is going to continue to go on if someone doesn't do anything," Gilliland said.
Gilliland gathered her teammates and told them the role she had filled for most of her three seasons was going to change. With UK's home first-round NCAA Tournament matchup (Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET) with Ohio State (10-6-3, 4-5-2 Big Ten) fast approaching, the Cats (13-6-1, 7-5-0 SEC) have responded.
"I think this week's been our best week of training since preseason," Lipsitz said. "We are just really sharp. We have a better idea of who can play and who can't. It seems like every week we were adjusting to another player being out and I think we know who we are now."
Considering that Pope's injury is only the latest in a string of misfortunes that might have undone a lesser team, it's impressive that UK has even reached this point. It started when senior captain Ashley VanLandingham went out with a season-ending knee injury of her own in the spring and continued when sophomore Courtney Raetzman was lost before conference play, but the Cats never stopped.
"The fact that we've been able to overcome the adversity just proves the depth of this team and the passion and drive that we have to be the best that we can be this year," Gilliland said.
Simply being tabbed to host a first-round NCAA Tournament match for the third straight season is an accomplishment, but it's not one UK is willing to settle for.
Two years ago, the Cats were elated to just make it to the biggest stage in their game. Last year, they were eager to win the first NCAA game in school history. With that memorable extra-time victory in their back pocket, the Cats are ready for more.
"Once you get over the hump and get that first, I think your preparation's very different, I really do," Lipsitz said.
Standing in UK's way is an opponent familiar to Lipsitz.
Before he went on to head-coaching stops at Charlotte and now Kentucky, Lipsitz was an assistant at Ohio State from 2001-04 under Lori Walker, who is in her 17th season leading the Buckeyes.
"I think I know them very well and I think they know us very well," Lipsitz said. "Obviously it's a coaching staff that I deeply respect. I coached at Ohio State with Lori. She's obviously done a tremendous job. Her two assistants (Glen Tourville and Jason Goodson), they're great friends of mine."
Lipsitz mentioned defensive organization, set pieces and finishing as keys to the game, but he won't overload his team with information. The Cats, after all, have been working toward this moment from the preseason's first practice.
"All those little details that get worked on early in the season are about preparing for now," Lipsitz said. "They just keep talking about, 'Take care of the details. You've been coached to do these things, trust this process and we know that we'll be successful.' "
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."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, October 27:
Football Top Performers:
Alvin "Bud" Dupree - Career-high 13 tackles, including two tackles for loss and a quarterback sack
Raymond Sanders - Rushed 15 times for 86 yards, caught two passes for six yards
Jojo Kemp - Rushed 15 times for 63 yards and a touchdown
Ryan Timmons - Caught five passes for 69 yards
Women's soccer: Arin Gilliland
MAC Hermann Award finalist Arin Gilliland netted her team-high 11th goal of the season in the 64th minute to draw even with the Tigers. Gilliland now has 11 goals and nine assists for 31 points on the season. With three points this weekend, Gilliland now has 72 career points, which is fifth all-time in UK history.
Women's soccer: Caitlin Landis
Senior Caitlin Landis scored her 21st-career goal on Friday night, as she is now the active career goal-scoring leader for Kentucky. The Milton, Penn., native has 12 points this season, with four goals and four assists. Landis had the assist on the game-tying goal on Sunday afternoon to Arin Gilliland, and was a crucial component for the other two goals in the UK offensive attack.
Volleyball: Alexandra Morgan
Senior Alexandra Morgan had a terrific week for the Wildcats en route to a 2-1 week, with the only loss a heartbreaking 3-2 loss with a 23-21 score in the fifth set. Morgan averaged 2.50 kills per set on a team-high .436 hitting clip. She also averaged a team-high 1.25 blocks per set and ranked second on the team with 3.54 blocks per frame. She began the week with an 11-kill performance at Georgia which was the first double-figure kill effort in conference play of the season for the middle blocker. She also posted a team-best six blocks in the match and added a season-high three service aces. Against Mississippi State she notched five kills on a .400 hitting clip while adding a trio of blocks. Against her home-state team, Alabama, she posted a season-high 14 kills on a blistering .619 hitting percentage while adding six block assists. With a .436 hitting clip and 55 attempts on the week, Morgan moved into second-place all-time in the history of the UK program for hitting percentage with a career-clip of .346.
Volleyball: Anni Thomasson
Freshman Anni Thomasson continues to bring a consistent presence to the Wildcat lineup. Thomasson contributes in every facet of the game and this week was no exception as UK earned a 2-1 week against league foes with the only loss coming in five-set fashion with the fifth set resulting in a 23-21 score. Thomasson notched a career-high three assists and a career-best four blocks against the Bulldogs while adding seven kills and nine digs. She received 42 attempts from the serve-receive line and did not commit a single error. Against Mississippi State she reached double-figure kills for the fourth time in her career and with 12 resulting as a career-best in league competition. She laid down her kills with a .357 hitting clip, while adding three digs and a pair of blocks. In the four-set win over Alabama, Thomasson notched six kills, and 10 digs. She has topped the 10-dig plateau on six occasions in her young career. She also aided the Wildcat cause with a pair of assists.
Early in the second half of Sunday's UK women's soccer game, it looked as though Senior Day would end on a sour note, but apparently Caitlin Landis and the rest of the seniors didn't want their final regular season home match to end in a loss.
Down a goal 51 minutes in, being forced to endure yet another injury to a key player -- this time attacking play-maker Stuart Pope -- continuing to be frustrated by LSU's physical defensive tactics and having spurned countless scoring chances for a second straight game, Jon Lipsitz finally vocalized his frustrations from the touch line on the hour mark.
"Grit is something we've been talking about a lot," Lipsitz said. "The only clips of the Missouri game I showed the team yesterday were our missed chances and our lack of toughness. That was it, that's all I cared about. I thought the first half was very difficult because we had so many special chances. We had a lot of chances where we had actually pulled the goalie outside the frame of the goal, and we still missed the open goal.
"Of course the challenge at halftime was are we going to continue to play well or are we going to get our heads down? We got scored on, and I thought scoring pretty soon after was huge because it helped us relax, and get back into our play."
Less than five minutes after Lipsitz loudly voiced his concerns, and 13 minutes after LSU's goal, Landis created another goal-scoring chance, and finally someone tucked it home.
From there the Wildcats took control of the game, but as 3-1 score lines go, Sunday's result was a gritty as they come. Even with the plethora of first-half chances the Wildcats struggled to find their comfortable possession-based playing rhythm. Still UK found a way to produce a positive outcome when the pressure of two straight losses and all that would go along with another bad result was beginning to mount.
"We talk a lot here about wanting pressure," Lipsitz said. "You want pressure. If you lose all your games, you don't have any pressure. We're in a situation now where we're fighting for an NCAA bid and a place in the SEC Tournament. There is pressure on us. That's what we want. We want players that love that."
The Wildcats have dealt well with such pressure all season, having won the game following a loss three times this season and drawn after the only other loss.
Landis's assist on the equalizer continued a strong weekend as she scored a game-tying goal in Friday's double-overtime match, but her goals and ability to create chances meant more to UK than just affecting the score sheet.
Landis and the rest of UK's seniors' ability to respond to the team falling behind or facing other forms of adversity has led the team by example, embodying exactly what Lipsitz asks of his leaders: grit.
"They have to be our leaders, and they have been," Lipsitz said of the players honored as part of Senior Day festivities. "Each one of them has a special story. Each one of them has different trials and tribulations that they've gone through to get to this point. I'm so proud of them. Every time I felt like I was going to get a little choked up I just kept looking at them and going, 'This is fantastic. I shouldn't be upset; I should be happy.' I just kept reminding myself how much I enjoy coaching them."
Sunday's comeback had to be all the more enjoyable for Lipsitz due to his teams response, led in part by seniors like Landis.
"Cat Landis has learned so much in her career," Lipsitz said. "She is playing her best soccer, by far her best soccer at the end. It's not just getting a great goal on Friday for example. She's scored some really good goals. The way she sees the field and her ability to play other players in now is something she didn't have before.
"She was not starting early in the year, and we made some adjustments. I said, 'Hey Cat, it's your time.' It was the next person up. She has put a stranglehold on it ever since. I hope she feels like I was totally wrong when I wasn't starting her early. I hope she looks at me every day and thinks, 'You are an idiot,' because I want my players to want to be on the field and think they deserve to be. She was ready when her number was called and she's been ready ever since."