Seven UK student-athletes participated in a service trip to Ethiopia this week. (Jeffrey Burns, UK Athletics)
This week, Wildcat student-athletes Kate Lanier, Alex Carter, Ale Walker, Morgan Bergren, Sam Day, Kaelon Fox and Cassidy Hale are
one the second of two UK Athletics service trips to Ethiopia. Over the
they will take turns sharing their experiences in a series of Cat
Scratches blog entries. Please note that these posts are the
student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not
necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.
Today, Carter and Day write about a day in Korah that completely changed their perspective.
Alex Carter (women's soccer) On Tuesday we went to the city of Korah, which is an extremely impoverished place. At one point it was solely a leper colony. Lepers are considered untouchables in Ethiopian society. In this day and age, however, cities surrounding Korah have grown enough to where their boundaries have merged and there are no longer only lepers residing there. However, it still remains one of the most impoverished places in Ethiopia.
Tuesday morning we drove into Korah and to an organization that does several different projects that have to do with loving and caring for the people in this city. We arrived with supplies such as toilet paper, oil, soap, noodles, rice, matches and other useful things. We were greeted by the leaders of the organization, along with 30 families that we were getting the opportunity to bless that day. As soon as we walked in, we saw so many big and beautiful smiles and kids who were running up to play with us.
After divvying up all of the supplies, the leader of their organization blessed and then passed them out. I cannot describe the joy on the people faces as they received these gifts. It was as if it was the first gift they had ever received. Even though we did not speak the same language, it was awesome to get to go around and hug some of the women and shake their hands. I did not need to understand them to know what they were feeling. We also got the opportunity to hand out candy, stickers and glow sticks to the kids and blow bubbles with them.
Afterwards, we said our goodbyes, got in the van, and headed to the city dump. This is where many people go to scavenge to try and find food for themselves and their families for the day. It was even more heartbreaking when I found out that many women lived in this dump with their many children and husbands, because they could not afford to pay rent for a house in the city. These people would set up what resembled a shelter, with at least a metal sheet propped up over their heads. But in most of these cases, there were five to 10 people having to live in these tiny spaces.
We went into one lady's "house" and started talking to her and learning about her with the help of our translators. She told us that she had problems with her head and her heart and could not work because of it. Her husband also could not work because he was crippled. All he could do is sit out on the street and ask for money. They had seven children who all lived with them in that small space. If they had food that day, it was either from finding it in the dump or from the money her husband collected that day (from one of the poorest cities in the country, mind you). In my mind they were completely hopeless.
After hearing their story, our guide, Mark, asked her in she was one of the families that were part of this program that we had just served earlier that day. She said no. He told her and the leaders of the organization that she qualified to be in this program and that they would set her up an appointment to be interviewed. When she heard this news she burst into tears and bowed, thanking God and us again and again. Wow. That just ripped my heart right out of my chest. This lady was given an interview to POSSIBLY receive a few supplies a month, and she was filled with such joy and hope (possibly for the first time in her life) that her and her family might be redeemed.
In the U.S., our society says that success is ultimately the most important thing. You can see this drive everywhere you look. We have Instagram, Twitter and Facebook where we post selfies or other pictures that make people understand just how important we think we are. We strive for the best education and the best resume that will set us up for the best job to get us the best car and the best house and a perfect family. Many times we strive more than anything to be known, powerful and liked, and we place value on those people who are, regardless of character. Success is what drives us, and we are willing to push whoever and whatever down to get there.
Here, I look around this city dump (and really around the whole country of Ethiopia) and I see people our society would count as nobodies. They are literally forgotten or ignored all of the time. In fact, the city has come several times to bulldoze the houses of the people in this dump, because they are considered illegal homes. They are seen as pests that are just in the way. It was at this moment where it all came together for me, and I experienced God's love more than I ever have before. Every time I looked at one of these people we were visiting, I could not fight back the tears. I just kept thinking, "God knows you name, child. He knows what you're going through. He sees your struggles and your broken spirit. He values your soul equally with mine (even with all of my falsely perceived self-importance) and every one else's. He designed and created you EXACTLY how he intended, without any mistakes. He has a plan and purpose for your life. Even though this world counts you out, you are important to Him. He wants you to seek him with all of your heart. He loves you." This was so humbling, and it changed the way I thought of these people. It is easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged and view this experience as a big and hopeless sea of problems. I started thinking of them as individuals that God loves.
The truth is, this life on earth is so short when compared with eternity. Even though I was surrounded by heartbreaking circumstances with heartbroken people, I could not help but be overwhelmed with joy, because I knew for a fact that all of the women we had met and served that day loved God and were saved. Tears of joy streamed down my face. I was filled with hope when I realized that these women have what counts. They have the only thing that matters in this life: faith and hope in Jesus, maybe even more so than me. It is easy for me to take God out of the equation in my life, where I grew up getting everything I wanted and needed. It is easy for me to think that I am the reason I am doing so well.
In a strange way, it was rather beautiful to see these women and families in such low circumstances, because they literally put every ounce of their hope in the Lord. When anything good comes their way they fall on their face and praise God. I wish I had faith like theirs. In Revelation it says, "and He who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, or any scorching heat. For The Lamb at the center of the thrown will be their shepherd; He will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." I kept saying this over and over in my head, and suddenly was filled with hope for them. I prayed, "God, you truly know what these people are going through. If they could just hold on, if they could just keep hoping in you, even if they make it out by the skin of their teeth, one day soon they will be crowned in heaven and be made whole, healed, and forever satisfied in your presence. It was there that I truly felt the love of God and saw the true beauty in these people.
I have to admit somewhat embarrassingly, that beside my prayers, I was not a great help to my team that day due to the fact that I was such an emotional wreck. But let me tell you, that forever changed the way I see people in poverty, or with any other seemingly hopeless situation in life. I am so grateful for this opportunity I have been given to come to this beautiful country and meet and serve these beautiful people. I hope to one day go back again and be able to bless and serve these people, in which God has broken my heart for.
Sam Day (swimming and diving)
As I planned and packed for this trip, I had to prepare myself mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. After spending five days in and around Addis Ababa, I have realized no matter what I did to plan for this trip, it wasn't possible for me to be fully prepared for these experiences.
On our final day in Addis Ababa we visited a community in Korah, which is also the place of the city's dump. One of our leaders said that there are between one hundred and one hundred fifty thousand people that make their living and provide for their families by scavenging through the dump. Even after nearly a week of working in Ethiopia, my heart continued to break for these people.
As we pulled into the community and up to the church, the people of the area flocked to our van. Everyone was interested and wanted to know what we were doing there. I hadn't seen poverty like this on the trip. Everyone was so desperate and in need. I struggled with this because if I tried to help anyone, I would have to help everyone and I wasn't able to do so. We went into the church and organized the supplies we had brought. Everyone was so joyful and happy to see us; the attitude of the people inside was the opposite as that of those outside. There was hope in their eyes. We introduced ourselves and passed out the supplies. Everyone was so thankful and appreciative. It was hard for me to wrap my head around why. How could people be so thankful for so little? But this was the reaction of everyone all week. Seeing this has caused me to take a step back and look at how grateful or ungrateful I am for everything I have.
From there we went to a community next to the dump and visited people in their homes. I will never forget the odor of the hillside we were on and will also never understand how people can live with such a smell engulfing the air. We pulled up and in the same way the people gathered near our van at the community center, they did here as well. Most of the homes were behind a makeshift fence that surrounded the community. We were able to meet and pray with a few of the people living here. They were all women and children because they were either widows or their husbands were out begging for money.
One of the women was living with her 1-year-old baby in a shack with barely enough room to sleep. I was utterly stunned when she said all she wanted was something to stop the rain from running through her house. A woman with almost nothing didn't want a new home but merely an improvement on the one she had. We visited another woman who had three children, 13, 9 and 1 years old. Her husband was crippled and out sitting on the street begging for money. She was very happy to see us and asked for our leader to pray for her. We continued through the community and met a few other people. I was blessed with the opportunity to be able to pray with a woman who let a few of my team members and me into her home. She said she has a heart problem and has to pay rent to someone that didn't actually own the land since it is owned by the government. This woman and her son could not understand anything I said but still seemed to know I was praying for them and that what I was saying was about them. It felt so good to be with them and I hope I was able to give them a little more hope than they had.
The children all around Korah were so happy all the time. They just followed us and would want to play and eat any candy we had. I probably threw about 50 kids in the air and lifted more onto my shoulders. These kids were so delighted to play and tried to come with us and I'm sure a few of us would have gladly done so. Even when our van pulled away and drove to a different area, the kids followed and would bring friends. I was encouraged by their attitude even though they had so little.
This week has been a truly eye-opening experience for me. Not only have I been tested physically with nearly two days of travel and working at high elevation, I have also been tested mentally and emotionally. I have had to take a step back and reevaluate a lot about myself. I hope to return home and bring my experiences with me. I need to allow these memories to help me change areas in my life. I'm sure this week is going to help me grow in new ways in the classroom, pool and life as a whole.
Arin Gilliland converts the first penalty of the shootout. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
There was a big "red wall," and the Kentucky women's soccer team couldn't quite break it down. Such was the way UK head coach Jon Lipsitz described playing against Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in Saturday's first-round NCAA Tournament game.
The match unfolded in one of the scenarios you really only see in soccer.
One team dominates, so much so that the other side gives up on trying to score, yet the result is a tie. And not only that, but then determining the winner comes down to a 50/50 lottery.
Such was the case under frigid conditions at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer complex. The Wildcats won, 4-2, in the penalty shootout after the game ended tied 0-0 through 90 minutes and two overtimes, but advancing to the final 32 in the NCAA Tournament was no easy task.
By any measure Southern Illinois University Edwardsville parked the proverbial bus.
And as many times as UK's offensive attacks created cracks in the wall, the Cats could not break through.
The Wildcats didn't play poorly; in fact they created a massive quantity of chances. Thirty-one shots, eight of them on goal, another shot that agonizingly went off the cross bar and 17 corners, but UK couldn't score over 110 minutes so the game went to penalties.
"People will look at it and say how did you not score? Well we had 18 shots in the second half and nine corners," Lipsitz said. "They had two back saves, we had a ball literally on the line. I mean, that is frustrating but at the same time you know what I am going to say to my team? I thought we acted very well after halftime and played very well.
"Got ourselves more than enough opportunities and it was not like the first half where I thought we weren't really creating enough opportunities. In the second half and overtime, I thought we played extremely well. We created great opportunities in the box where we just missed or they blocked a lot of shots. Credit to them and obviously we are going to work on some finishing and cleaning things up in the box this week."
So a win or go home NCAA Tournament First-Round game came down to the lottery that is penalties.
Despite all but giving up on scoring after 60 minutes in a 90-minute game, the Ohio Valley Conference's SIUE had just as good a chance to advance in the NCAA Tournament as a nationally seeded Kentucky.
That said, the likes of Arin Gilliland would not let the season end.
The cliche of a senior standout performer living to fight another day in the NCAA Tournament has been analyzed many times, and Gilliland seemed to perpetuate that recurring storyline on Saturday.
Gilliland took a knock to her foot in last Sunday's Southeastern Conference championship game against Texas A&M, and the injury seemed to limit her against SIUE. But the pain apparently wasn't enough to keep her from creating UK's two best chances of the night, and expertly convert UK's first penalty of the shootout.
"(Arin Gilliland) steps up and hammers home the first one," Lipsitz said. "And she got really beaten up in the Texas A&M game less than a week ago believe it or not. I had to actually ask her 'can you take a PK?' because of her foot. She looked right at me and said 'I am taking a PK.' OK she is taking a PK.
"But I literally had 2, 3, 4, and 5 written down and I did not have a No. 1 shooter written down because I didn't know this morning when I was doing this if Gilly would be able to shoot or not. So I am proud of our toughness and our ability to just stick to the plan to the details necessary and find a way to advance."
The way Gilliland converted the penalty -- hammered into the top-left corner of the goal at a pace that made the shot unstoppable -- spoke to her determination. To inspire her team to victory, to play through pain and just to keep her college career going.
Such determination could also be attributed to UK freshman goalie Taylor Braun. The shot stopper ended the shootout with a diving stop, giving the Wildcats an unsurmountable 4-2 advantage.
But to be as focused as she was all game, and more importantly in the shootout, after never seriously being troubled or even having an opposing player come within 30 yards of her over 110 minutes of open-field action was commendable.
As well as Braun, and Gilliland and the rest of the Wildcats did in keeping focus and making the plays needed to win, their performances were in keeping with a saying that has become something of a mantra for Lipzitz and his Wildcats.
They were doing their "jobs."
For Gilliland it was leading, if only by example if not by scoring the first penalty. And for Braun it was making just one save in a shootout where UK's players were a perfect 4-of-4 on their kicks.
"Through the game, it's important as a goalkeeper, even when you're not getting any action, that you're still getting work, to stay focused and continue doing the details and communicating throughout the whole thing," Braun said. "It's easy to get disengaged when there is not much action. Going into PKs, I got excited, because I'm confident in my team and the way that we practiced them and the way that we handle pressure situation.
"I just knew that we were going to come out with a win after. I love pressure. I knew that all I needed to do was save one, like Jon said. Just do your job, just save one. That's what I did tonight, and it felt great to pull it out."
UK's next "job" will be to prepare for a Friday 3 p.m. ET Second-Round NCAA Tournament matchup with Arizona State in Charlottesville, Va.
UK opens NCAA Tournament play at home against SIUE on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET. (UK Athletics)
The Kentucky women's soccer team has been at it for almost three months now. Not only that, the Wildcats had just returned from a weeklong road trip and a 12-hour bus ride at 6:30 a.m.
Naturally, Jon Lipsitz's wife asked him if he was tired.
"Heck yeah," Lipsitz told her. "That's exactly how I want to feel right now."
When the alternative is sitting at home, the choice is clear.
"When you get to the end of the year and everybody's a little worn down, it's the greatest feeling in the world," Lipsitz said. "So many teams are done and here we are, one of the 64 teams playing in the NCAAs and one of the 32 teams hosting."
The Cats are at home, but they're doing anything but sitting this week. UK will play host to SIU Edwardsville in a first-round NCAA Tournament matchup at 7:30 p.m. at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex.
"A great challenge for us," Lipsitz said. "I know that they're very excited. First time for them and I remember what that feels like. I know that they'll be sky high when they get here and I think a quick start for us is very important."
UK, a national seed in the tournament for the first time in school history, enters the favorite. The label, an unfamiliar one for a program still growing, is one that might pose a danger of overlooking an SIUE team that has impressed Lipsitz in watching tape. SIUE's Ohio Valley Conference Tournament performance caught Lipsitz's eye in particular, a game in which the Cougars overcame a two-goal deficit with less than 10 minutes remaining to punch their NCAA Tournament tickets in overtime.
"That's a pretty amazing, resilient team to be able to do something like that," Lipsitz said.
Resilient is a word that can be used to describe UK as well.
A little more than a month ago, the Cats were on the outside of the NCAA Tournament looking in, sporting an RPI of 59 on the heels of four losses in six matches. Since, UK has won eight times in nine matches, only dropping the Southeastern Conference Tournament final against NCAA No. 1 seed Texas A&M.
Combine that with the No. 3 seed and you have a recipe for a team in danger of resting on its laurels and expecting a win to come easily, but the Cats aren't about to fall victim to that, not with senior captains Stuart Pope and Arin Gilliland leading the way.
Within minutes of learning UK's seeding, Pope said it no longer mattered.
"It's interesting being in training with the team because there's been zero discussion of the things that we've accomplished so far," Lipsitz said. "Obviously I'm proud of what we've accomplished over time, the four years with this group, but they haven't mentioned it at all. For them it's one game. We're getting ready for Saturday and for us as a staff it's one game and getting ready for it."
The first step in that preparation was recovering from playing three games in five days at the SEC Tournament, which Lipsitz said "crushes you physically." Accordingly, UK took an off day on Monday and went light on Tuesday.
"We started getting back after it Wednesday and (Thursday) was the first day I saw a change of pace in what they were doing," Lipsitz said. "I saw some pop, as we call it, in their runs. Things started coming together (Thursday)."
That happened with temperatures dropping into the 30s as will be the case on at kickoff on Saturday night. But like with late-season exhaustion, the Cats aren't about to let a little November chill affect them.
"We couldn't care less," Lipsitz said. "Our choice is be out on a cold night, colder than usual this time of year, playing an NCAA game or being done with the season. Yeah, I think we're going to be excited. We're definitely going to be excited."
Jon Lipsitz isn't a coach who avoids NCAA Tournament talk with his team. His ultimate goals for Kentucky lie in the postseason and he's not afraid to let the Wildcats know.
A little more than a month ago, he proved it.
UK had just lost for the fourth time in six matches, dropping its RPI to 59th. After a defeat at Texas A&M on Oct. 5, Lipsitz told the Cats all about how their postseason lives were on the line.
"We handed it out to the team and we said, 'Look, we need to make it clear: We're not in the NCAA Tournament,' " Lipsitz said. " 'And we're not even on the bubble.' "
That was the beginning of a Tuesday tradition for the UK women's soccer program. Lipsitz would print sheets with Kentucky's RPI and upcoming opponents each week and distribute them to his team. In his office, he's kept the sheets to track the Cats' progress, all with one thing in mind.
"Our goal from that moment on was to get seeded," Lipsitz said. "It's something that hasn't happened."
On Monday, it did.
Gathered in the team lounge at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex, the Cats watched as they received a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, a program first. UK will play host to SIU Edwardsville (13-6-1, 8-2-0 Ohio Valley Conference) at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, marking the fourth straight season the Cats have hosted in the first round.
"I don't think any of us in this room were surprised that we got seeded," Stuart Pope said. "We've all been in here the last month and we've seen the change that's happened to our team."
That change, in large part, has been inspired by Pope and her fellow senior captain, Arin Gilliland. Charged with leading a team that relies on many young players, Pope and Gilliland have taken it upon themselves to reinforce and amplify their coach's message.
"We've only got three seniors and everyone else is underclassmen," said Gilliland, the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year. "So we're a young team. The fact that we had the mental toughness to come back and approach everything and say, 'We're going do this. We're going to make the NCAAs,' says a lot about who they are at a team and who they're going to continue to be."
That's spoken like a player who thinks every day about the legacy her senior class will leave behind. Gilliland, the best player in the history of the program by almost any measure, has been a centerpiece in UK's ascendance these last four years.
In her freshman season, UK returned to the tournament for the first time in 2006. A year later, the Cats won their first-ever NCAA Tournament game. In 2013, Gilliland became the third All-American in school history. Now, the national seed.
"We're doing things every year that haven't been done before," Gilliland said. "That's kind of something we like to do. What have we not done yet that can be done in this program? I think that's something we're leaving with the classes below us."
But before the seniors leave the program in the capable hands of their younger teams, there's work to be done. With two wins UK would reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history, but UK's only concern at this point is SIU Edwardsville.
"We always prepare for success and we'll be prepare for each match, but we will not even look at film or discuss film on anyone other than our Saturday opponent," Lipsitz said. "That's all that matters to us."
UK has won first-round NCAA matches each of the last two seasons, but the Cats enter the tournament differently than they ever have. For starters, they'll be carrying the label of favorite that comes with that No. 3 seed.
"It's great that we're seeded, but seeds don't mean anything in the NCAA," Pope said. "You have to come out ready like you're playing the No. 1 seed, like you're the underdog. Because if you don't, if you come in expecting to win, someone's going to catch someone. And we're not going to let that be us."
The other reason why this NCAA appearance is different has everything to do with Pope's "we're-not-going-to-let-that-be-us" confidence.
After that loss to Texas A&M, UK reeled off eight straight wins, including two in the Southeastern Conference Tournament to set up a finals rematch with the Aggies in Orange Beach, Ala. The Cats would lose 1-0 on Sunday, but they did so going toe to toe with an A&M team that received a No. 1 seed on Monday.
"Before the bus pulled away from Orange Beach, I got on the bus and I said to the team, 'I am more confident in our ability today than I was before the game,' " Lipsitz said. "We lost the game and all congratulations to Texas A&M, but the way we played told me that we're ready and told me that we're playing our best soccer at the end of the year and I think that's a big difference from the past."
It also doesn't hurt that UK will play in the friendly confines of the Bell Soccer Complex, a beautiful new facility that opened this season.
"There's something different, a different feeling, about being on your home field, something that's comfortable about that," Gilliland said. "It lets you really just be in your element and I know everyone's going to rise up and do what they need to do."
In short, Gilliland couldn't think of a better place to start her final NCAA Tournament run.
"We want to go as far as we can in this NCAA Tournament and I think we've got a great setup to do so," Gilliland said. "We're going to continue to lead our team the best way we know how."
Arin Gilliland and her fellow seniors won their home regular-season finale against Alabama on Thursday, 2-1. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Arin Gilliland has battled through indescribable adversity in her four years as a Wildcat to cement herself as the best player in the history of the Kentucky women's soccer program.
With all that in mind, Gilliland deserved a winning sendoff.
But 13 minutes into a Senior Night match against Alabama, UK yielded a tying goal.
"We gave up the goal on my mistake," Gilliland said.
As disappointed as she was in herself, allowing the goal only served to turn her final regular-season home match into more of a fairytale finish. In the 86th minute, Cara Ledman's corner kick found Kaitlin Miller, who headed the ball for a goal and a 2-1 victory for No. 24/18 UK (13-5, 8-3 Southeastern Conference).
"My team backed me up and they picked the team up and they got another one," said Gilliland, whose run toward goal forced the corner kick. "They found a way. Those are the kind of games that I live for, when my team finds a way to win in a tough situation. That's why this win is so special to me."
Making it even more special is the fact that UK almost certainly would have lost this game had it been played six weeks ago.
"It wasn't an aesthetically pleasing game, but sometimes you gotta find a way to grind it out," head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "These are the exact wins earlier in the year that were losses. We just didn't grind out the difficult ones and I think that's part of our big change."
Before the "big change," UK had lost four times in six matches. The Cats entered the season with high hopes, but were all of a sudden perilously perched on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Since then, UK has won six matches in a row to secure the No. 3 seed in the SEC Tournament and make a strong case for a national seed in the big dance.
For that reason, Senior Night was hardly a farewell for this class of Gilliland, Stuart Pope, Emma Brown and Maddie Lockridge.
"It feels great, but I'm not sending them off," Lipsitz said. "We've got a lot more to do."
That starts in next week's conference tournament at 3:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday against an opponent to be determined.
As decorated the winningest class in school history is, these seniors have never won a game in the SEC Tournament. Gilliland is going to do everything in her power to change that.
"I never give for-sures, but I'm going to give everything I have and I know my team is going to do the same because they have a completely different attitude this year," Gilliland said. "They have this aggression about them. They have this really tough mentality and they want to win."
Lipsitz credits Gilliland and her fellow seniors for creating that toughness.
"What I right now love about this group is when things were hard we buckled down and we found a way," Lipsitz said. "That's what our program's about and that's the legacy these four are leaving us."
Jon Lipsitz hatched the idea on Wednesday, but he waited tell his team.
With No. 5 Florida visiting on Sunday and the potential for a crucial win, Lipsitz and his coaching staff decided to change formations to match the Gators' 3-5-2 look.
On Saturday, he told his players about the plan.
"Literally, we spent about 10 minutes on a board and 10 minutes on a practice field going over it, and said, 'Just play,' " Lipsitz said.
With minimal rehearsal time, the Kentucky players answered their coach's challenge.
"(The new formation) made it man-to-man, made you responsible individually, and made us play straight-up soccer with them -- and it worked," said senior defender Arin Gilliland. "Our team completely bought in. We hadn't practiced it, not one day at training."
Once the players bought into Lipsitz's blueprint, the results quickly followed. Substitute forward Zoe Swift found the back of the net in the game's 33rd minute, sparking a momentum swing heavily in UK's favor.
"In the locker room, Jon talked to us about how we just need to stay strong and need to just play our game," Swift said. "When we have our moments, we've got to finish them. That's what we did, and we executed what he told us to do."
With a season-high 1,172 home fans cheering them on, the Wildcats were able to turn that energy into a second goal less than 20 minutes later. The score would remain 2-0 for the rest of the contest, propelling Kentucky (10-5-0, 5-3-0 Southeastern Conference) to victory over the SEC's perennial power.
"The past two weeks of practice have been unbelievable with us," said senior midfielder Stuart Pope, who scored her first goal of the season. "Every detail's been taken care of. We've really picked up... our desire to really make a statement in the SEC and in the nation."
After consecutive SEC road losses to Missouri and Texas A&M, the Wildcats have looked like a different ball club over the past three games.
"We got really mad," Pope said. "We said, 'If things aren't going to go our way on certain things, then we're just going to make sure there's no possible way it could go the other way.' We're not letting outside factors influence us anymore, and we're focusing on details every day in practice."
With three consecutive shutout wins over South Carolina, Ole Miss, and Florida, junior midfielder Courtney Raetzman -- who on assisted Pope's goal -- echoed her captain's statement.
"We've come a long way since the beginning of the season, that's for sure," Raetzman said. "You can tell with more of our confidence in our style of play, we're more comfortable. We just definitely turned it around, and what a good time to do it."
With only three more games remaining before postseason play, the Wildcats are clicking at just the right time. Sunday's victory over Florida proved that they can compete with the best teams in the country. However, Lipsitz was quick to point out that at the end of the day, it's just another win on the season.
"It means a win," Lipsitz said. "It means three points in the conference standings. It means a lot of help with our RPI for the NCAA's. As soon as we hit 12:01 a.m. tomorrow -- and I will tell them this -- it means a win. I'll let them enjoy it until then, but at 12:01 on Monday it's three points."
Courtney Raetzman scored the game-winning second-half goal in UK's win over South Carolina on Friday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Rain falling, wind blowing and two tough losses on their mind, the Kentucky Wildcats returned to their home field.
The matchup with a tough South Carolina team was a big one, with precious few opportunities remaining for resume-building wins ahead of the NCAA Tournament.
Even though the conditions were far from ideal, the Cats weren't about to be deterred. The result was an important victory.
"It was definitely huge for us," Courtney Raetzman said. "It showed a lot about our character and coming out here to fight. That's what we came to do."
To Michelle Rayner -- filling in for Jon Lipsitz on Friday night as the head coach served a one-game suspension for a red card given in a loss at Texas A&M on Sunday -- it was that fight that made all the difference for UK (8-5-0, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) in a 1-0 win.
"Loved it. Loved it," Rayner said. "And I think that's really kind of what we've been lacking, is not only the fight but winning the first and second balls and the battle in the midfield and primarily up top, to keep the ball for us. And I think we did a much better job of that today."
The fight was on display in a tough first half, as UK managed to make it out in a scoreless tie with South Carolina (9-4-1, 2-3-1 SEC) in spite of playing into the wind and rain. In the second, Raetzman put away the winner in the 66th minute.
"Cara Ledman crossed it, it goes past everyone and I slid to get it before anyone," Raetzman said. "But big credit goes to my team for that because they built that whole play up."
Raetzman deserves some credit too. She executed the game plan to perfection with her finish.
"As you can see by the goal, Cara Ledman got into the final third, slipped a ball through and we were talking about sliding and diving in the final third to get on the end of things and (Raetzman) did the exact same thing to them," Rayner said. "A good couple adjustments and they did it well."
Kentucky began the bounce-back process on Friday night.
On the heels of back-to-back overtime defeats, the Wildcats took care of business in a 3-0 win over Mississippi State. Their mission for the weekend, however, was far from complete.
On Sunday, UK finished the job with a 2-1 win against Auburn.
"Pepperdine and Arkansas really stung," head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "We needed to find a way to not only win two games, but win a game like this. This is exactly the kind of game that we've been letting get away from us. To play a great team like Auburn and such a well-coached team and to find a way says that there's something in us that we want to find a way to respond."
The game, as Lipsitz said, was hard-fought from start to finish, but UK came out on top. In doing so, the Cats (7-3-0, 2-1-0 Southeastern Conference) swept a crucial conference home weekend.
"We had to," Lipsitz said. "Sometimes your back is up against the wall and you have to find out who you are. When you fall, the question is, are you going to continue to fall or are you getting up?"
UK claimed a first-half lead when Jade Klump scored her fifth goal off a rebound from a shot by Arin Gilliland. It was the second goal the Cats scored off a loose ball in the box this weekend.
"It's not an accident," Lipsitz said. "We do a lot of drills that work on that."
But less than three minutes later, the Tigers (6-4-1, 0-2-1 SEC) responded with a game-tying goal. For the next 36 minutes the two teams would battle to a standstill before Zoe Swift headed in a Cara Ledman corner kick that Alex Carter served back in front of the net.
"I was wide open," Swift said. "I was like, 'If I miss, Jon's going to yell at me.' No, I'm just kidding. I saw I had to put it in the goal, do the details that we talk about in practice."
Open as she may have been, Swift delivered on a week of hard work with the game-winning goal.
"Zoe's been in a little bit of a lull right now and she's very hard on herself," Lipsitz said. "So we've been building her up and saying, 'Look, we know you can do this,' but it comes from work, it comes from doing the basics and she's really had an amazing week of training. I'm not surprised at all that she got one."
UK wasn't surprised to win either, but the Tigers - a "great team," according to Lipsitz - didn't make it easy. In the tougher moments, the Cats remembered they were playing for something bigger on Sunday.
"We just knew that Auburn was a great team and we've been training hard all week," Klump said. "We really enjoyed battling against them, but this was a Kick Cancer Match so we really wanted to come out and battle like those who have battled with cancer."
As part of the annual Kick Cancer Match, UK wore special Nike Volt jerseys that will be auctioned off to benefit the Dance Blue Clinic at the University of Kentucky Children's Hospital. The team also honored cancer sufferers by placing yellow roses on the goal line after the game.
The postgame ceremony was the second of the night, as UK President Eli Capilouto, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and Honda's manager of corporate community relations Erik Wedin were in attendance to present Arin Gilliland with the Honda Inspiration Award.
Entering the weekend, Lipsitz didn't hide from the importance of games against Mississippi State and Auburn to his team. What happened after the game served as a reminder that there are more important things still.
"Win or lose, that is secondary," Lipsitz said. "The game is secondary."