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."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, October 20:
Women's soccer: Arin Gilliland
Junior Arin Gilliland recorded her second hat trick of the season on Sunday afternoon, scoring the first three goals in Kentucky's 4-2 win over Alabama on Sunday afternoon. With the three goals, Gilliland now has 10 goals on the season and a team-high 28 points in 2013. Gilliland becomes just the second player in UK history to record two hat tricks in the same season, as she also had a hat trick last Friday night vs. Tennessee. All of Gilliland's goals were scored in the first half (23', 40', 45').
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, October 13:
Volleyball: Whitney Billings
Senior Whitney Billings registered her 38th career double-double with an 18-kill, 10 dig performance in a 3-0 sweep at South Carolina. Billings was UK's top threat with the 18 kills on a blistering .484 hitting percentage, while adding the 10 scoops. The 18 hammers marked a career-high in a three-set match. Even more impressive with Billings' play against South Carolina was that it was in response to a blatant effort by No. 2 Florida to slow the right side hitter down in the top-15 showdown. Billings managed five kills (one shy of a team high), but was one of only two players to record double-figure digs with the 10 scoops against the Gators.
Women's soccer: Arin Gilliland
Arin Gilliland scored three goals in Friday night's 4-1 win over Tennessee, collecting her first-career hat trick. Gilliland scored all three goals in the run of play, with the tallies coming in the 8th, 25th and 40th minutes. The MAC Herrmann Award finalist now has seven goals and eight assists on the season, and has scored multiple times in two games this season.
Women's soccer: Caitlin Landis
Senior Caitlin Landis had her best game of the season, scoring a goal and assisting on two other goals, both to Arin Gilliland. Landis' goal was the game-winning goal, which was her first of the 2013 season, and sixth in her career.
Volleyball: Jackie Napper
Sophomore Jackie Napper led the defensive effort for the Wildcats in a 1-1 week. Napper logged 28 digs for an average of 4.67 for the week, well above her season average of 3.88. She's eclipsed the 10-dig plateau in 12 of her last 13 matches to lead the Cats. She also contributed four assists on the week continuing to be a strong presence in the offensive game as well.
Mike Tyson once said: "Everyone has a plan 'til they get punched in the mouth." The former heavyweight champion's words often hold true in the world of Southeastern Conference soccer.
Jon Lipsitz spends a great deal of time analyzing video with his staff, breaking it down and showing it to the UK women's soccer team as part of devising a game plan.
Still, sometimes the opponent executes its own game plan a little better. They hit you before you can get to them and once you're down you can't recover.
Kentucky's 3-0 home-loss to Arkansas three weeks ago was a notable case of an opponent preventing UK from settling into its ideal style.
Since the loss two Fridays ago, UK has drawn first blood three straight times. Friday's 4-1 victory over Tennessee -- in which the Wildcats scored twice inside the first 15 minutes for the second time in as many matches -- was no exception.
Kentucky scored early and often, figuratively hitting Tennessee in the mouth, and the Lady Volunteers were unable to adjust, let alone recover.
"We had a very tactical week in training," Lipsitz said. "We got way ahead last week on film because there was only one game this week so we could focus a lot more on it, and I thought that helped us a lot. As I have said all year when the coaches get to give the players a game plan and they work so hard to meet that plan we can show how special we can be.
"Tennessee is a great team. We caught them early, and that was obviously the start we were looking for being back home. It's just a lot of hard work. You don't know from day to day if a shot is going to go in or not go in. What we can control is how hard we work. I thought we worked hard tonight."
Lipsitz's plan required some of his defenders to play major roles in attack. After picking up some of Tennessee's tendencies in film study, the UK coach knew he had advantage on the flanks with his wide backs getting forward.
Indeed both Kelly Hubly on the right and Cara Ledman on the left played in forward positions throughout the first half, with a cross from the latter leading to the opening goal.
Lipsitz's plan was certainly aided by having two talented fullbacks, who have spent most of their careers as forwards. As such, they are more skilled than the typical college defender.
Hubly had the second-most goals on the team last season as a freshman, and Ledman is no slouch as an attacking player herself. Lipsitz has described the converted left back as the team's most talented finisher inside the 18-yard box, a bold statement considering she plays on the back line.
"One of the things that is difficult about playing Tennessee is they have great movement between their midfielders and their backs interchanging positions," Lipsitz said. "We actually said what might end up happening is we may have to track their backs into our back line, but then our wide backs would get to take off. We worked a lot this week on our wide backs setting the play instead of our wide forwards. It obviously is an advantage having two forwards at wide back in a game where they get to go forward like they did."
UK went into the Tennessee game with an aggressive plan, but such tactics require a great deal of confidence and fearless attitudes. Such qualities are central to Lipsitz's most trusted on-field leader: Arin Gilliland.
The junior captain certainly repaid her coach's trust as she enjoyed her first-career hat trick, but her third goal was what best exemplified the aggressiveness Lipsitz has be preaching.
After receiving the ball with space in midfield ahead of the rest of her teammates, Gilliland decided to run on the ball straight toward goal. Electing to take on the defenders, she used her speed to get by three Lady Volunteers.
All three defenders attempted to knock Gilliland off the ball, and all three seemed to bounce off as the Lexington product found herself one on one with the goal keeper before she calmly slotted the ball home.
"Jon has talked about being more aggressive and having a fire when attacking," Gilliland said. "He started telling us that before the Vanderbilt game. When I saw three players coming through with all the space behind I thought I would take a touch, run through them because I am either going to get out into space or they will foul me and I'm going to get a penalty kick. I definitely think practicing that definitely worked and I hate to say it, but Jon's practice did work."
With all due respect to the rest of the Wildcats, Gilliland is the team's most talented player. But she's also the hardest worker, and she's always looking to improve. She has certainly improved her physicality in recent months, her second goal showed as much.
"I actually watched a game from last year this week because only preparing for one team allows you a little extra time," Lipsitz said. "I watched in order to evaluate how our individuals were developing. One of the things that was pretty stunning on the film was to see how different Arin is as a complete player than she was a year ago. Her ability to handle physical play without having it get under her skin is a huge part of that."
Gilliland would also reluctantly, but jokingly, admit -- because it would require crediting her coach -- that she was the beneficiary.
Lipsitz's initial tactical decision as UK's second goal came on a glancing header -- which she barely made contact with, redirecting the ball just enough to put the goalkeeper out of position -- from a cross made deep into the box, very close to goal. The Wildcats worked on such balls all week after too many crosses were too far from the goal in weeks past.
Like so many other training-pitch exercises from the previous week, the work paid off.
Even up 4-0 at half, Lipsitz still had helpful hints to give his players. After all, he couldn't let all the knowledge gained from hours spent in the film room go to waste just because his team had scored four times in one half.
"If you looked at Tennessee's stats they have now scored 12 goals in the second half and they've allowed one," Lipsitz said. "We knew they were going to come out in the second half. Obviously they are very well coached. We knew they were going to make adjustments so the key for us was to stay calm. Did we want to give up a goal? Well heck no. Did we want to score more? Absolutely, but the key was to stay calm. We had done the work so we just had to keep possessing the ball. We say all the time the best way to kill a clock is to have the ball."
Such a stat may have seemed miniscule amongst the broader themes of such a lopsided win, but his players' response illustrated the clear lines of communication, which have allowed UK to win 10 of its last 11 games.
Without prompting, Gilliland referenced Lipsitz's halftime message after the game.
"Jon put up a statistic on the board at halftime saying Tennessee has 11 second-half goals, and just one in the first half this season," Gilliland said. "We knew coming into the second half that they were going to be impressive from the start. At first we struggled because they were so aggressive out of the locker room. We got the restart under our belt, got a feel for it and handled it."
And yet, as perfectly as UK executed the game plan on Friday night, scoring four goals in the first half of an SEC game still came as a bit of a surprise.
"Any time we score four goals on a fantastic team of course it's a huge surprise," Lipsitz said. "There's a part of me that expects that because I've seen that in training. There's another part of me that goes, 'Wow, it came out in the game.' You're always surprised when you respect a team so much and you know that they're so good. To be up four goals at half is very surprising, but the other side of that is we didn't do anything today in this game differently than the way we trained this week."
Lipsitz may have been surprised that four goals came with such ease, but careful execution of a game plan allowed UK to land an early knockout blow on Friday.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, October 6:
Volleyball: Morgan Bergren
Sophomore setter Morgan Bergren led UK's offense to a pair of sweeps against SEC foes. Bergren dished out 10.5 assists per set while leading UK to a .391 hitting percentage combined in two victories well over UK's season average of .247. Bergren had seven kills of her own on a .333 clip, but it was her serving that was masterful. The sophomore had five aces on the weekend for an average of .83 per outing. She also contributed six blocks on the weekend and averaged 1.00 per set, second only to reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Week Alexandra Morgan's 1.09.The three aces she posted vs. Tennessee is a career-high total.
Men's soccer: Brad Doliner
Senior Brad Doliner had the best game of his career in leading Kentucky to a thrilling 2-1 overtime win at Old Dominion ... Doliner had his first career two-goal game, including netting the golden goal in the 98th minute to seal the win and adding a go-ahead score early in the second half ... Doliner now has four goals and one assist - his first career goals - with two game winners, 19 shots and 10 shots on goal ... A native of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Doliner leads C-USA in conference games only in points (six), goals (three), goals per game (1.50), shots per game (four) and game-winning goals (one), also ranking second in shots (eight) ... Doliner's first goal of the game at ODU came as a penalty kick tally in the 52nd minute, his second consecutive game with a PK goal ... After UK allowed the tying goal in the 77th minute, Doliner struck for the golden goal in the 98th frame, a laser from the edge of the 18-yard box, lifting UK to the thrilling win ... A selection to the Gamecock Classic All-Tournament Team earlier in the year, Doliner has played throughout the lineup for UK as a versatile weapon, seeing starts at center back, outside back, outside midfield, holding midfield and forward.
Men's soccer: Callum Irving
Sophomore goalkeeper Callum Irving had a breakout game in between the pipes at Old Dominion on Friday night, equaling his career high with six saves in leading UK to a 2-1 win in overtime ... Irving made all of his saves after halftime, including four in the second half and a pair of thrilling saves in overtime ... Irving had a save with a minute remaining in regulation after the ball bounced curving off the far post, keeping the well-struck, curving ball from crossing the end line ... A native of Vancouver, British Columbia, Irving also made a tremendous, diving save on a hard-hit offering in the second half ... "There were a couple of times today that I was sure the ball was in the goal and he came up with the save," UK head coach Johan Cedergren said postgame. "There were a couple of times when there were cleats flying around his head and he did not back down." ... On the year, Irving has started five games with a 1.18 goals-against average, saving 10 and owning two clean sheets.
Volleyball: Jackie Napper
Junior Jackie Napper led the defensive effort for the Wildcats in a 2-0 week that included two sweeps over SEC foes. Napper opened the week with a career-high 18 digs for a three-set match, while also contributing five assists and a career-high two aces. She followed that performance with 16 scoops vs. Tennessee while adding three assists and a kill. It was her third kill of the season. The 34 digs in back-to-back three-set matches is a career-high for six sets. She registered a .950 serve-receive percentage for the weekend, while helping lead UK's offense to a .391 hitting clip for the two victories.
Women's soccer: Zoe Swift
Freshman Zoe Swift continued her prolific freshman season, scoring just one minute into the match on Sunday to give No. 19 Kentucky the early 1-0 lead on Sunday atVanderbilt. The Naperville, Ill., native then assisted on the game-winning goal just two minutes later, as she gave a pass off to Arin Gilliland, who struck the back of the net in the fourth minute. The multi-point game was Swift's third of the season, and the second time she has scored three points in a single game in her career.
Volleyball: Anni Thomasson
Freshman Anni Thomasson had an outstanding weekend for the Cats en route to a pair of sweeps over conference opponents. Thomasson opened the weekend with eight kills and 10 digs in the victory over Ole Miss. She followed that performance with the first errorless match of her career with six kills on a career-high .545 hitting clip vs. Tennessee. She also added a pair of assists and a career-best three service aces. Furthermore she totaled seven digs. For the weekend she ranked second on the squad in kills, hitting percentage, aces, digs and points. She was perfect from the serve-receive line, being served a team-high 22 times and did not commit a single error. Her 2.33 kills per set on a .444 clip is significantly improved over her season averages of 1.61 kills per set on a .196 hitting clip.
On Sunday, the Kentucky women's soccer team held its annual Kick Cancer Match. You may have already read about how the Wildcats' victory over Georgia made the evening even more special, but today you can hear about it directly from one of the players.
Before the game, we celebrated the life of a very special young lady and our honorary ball girl, Allison Berger. She and her family (Steve and Crystal Berger) forever changed multiple people's lives on this team, and they did the honors of presenting the game ball before the match, followed by a moment of silence in remembrance of Allison.
We came out ready to play. Every person on that field had channeled every bit of emotion they had bottled up. This game was much more than just a soccer game for us, and we weren't settling for anything less than a win. After a long battle against a great Georgia team, we finally found the back of the net to take home a 1-0 win.
Afterward we held a ceremony with all the fans and family and whoever else wanted to participate in the remembrance of their loved ones, family and friends who had fallen to cancer. Everyone received a flower that was donated by a local grocery company and placed it on the goal line inside the goal, when they were ready, during a moment of silence.
The Cats wore special gold jerseys for the match and they are now up for auction here along with other items. All proceeds from the auction will go toward the fight against pediatric cancer.