The Kentucky women's soccer team's current seven-match winning streak has been catalyzed largely by the offensive output of two players who started the season as defenders.
Kentucky has not lost since former defenders Stuart Pope and Arin Gilliland moved into attacking positions before the third match of the season. Pope leads the team with nine goals. Gilliland ranks second in the nation and leads the Southeastern Conference with eight assists.
While Pope and Gilliland have shown off a lethal chemistry in the field's final third, each has a distinct pedigree.
Gilliland has proven a potent offensive weapon for the Wildcats in the past as she led the team with seven goals in an All-America 2012 season. She started the season starting as a central defender largely because she's likely to play there during her United States National Team call-ups.
Pope's offensive success seemed a novelty early in 2013, but it's been sustained through each of UK's seven straight wins. She has found the back of the net at least once in each victory.
That Pope has been so clinical on the offensive front has been due to expert navigation of largely uncharted territory by a player who plied her trade predominantly in wide areas before this season.
Pope had been UK's most creative player during Kentucky's disappointing offensive performances in the first two games of the season. Pope looked lively playing balls over the top into dangerous areas and making surging runs down the flanks in the first two matches.
Her ability to create from the back proved an idea Lipsitz had been considering since Pope arrived in Lexington more than two years ago.
"To imagine a year or two ago her commanding the middle of the field for 90 minutes, we imagined it but there is no way she could have done it, but now she deserves every accolade that she gets," Lipsitz said.
The move proved to trigger Kentucky's recent excellent run of form, and also appears to have put Pope in her ideal position.
"I was always more of a winger in club," Pope said. "This is really the first time I've played in the No. 10 position, but it feels natural to me. Even when I was out wide as a club player I would pinch in a lot into the hole. It's not really any different than where I've been playing, it's just more freedom."
Pope has scored four game-winning goals since moving into the traditional No. 10 role playing behind the striker in the heart of the UK attack. Pope struck the game-winner in last Friday's SEC-opening win at Auburn off an assist from Gilliland.
Indeed both Pope and Gilliland have shown an excellent rapport having both moved from defense to attacking roles earlier this season. The duo's symbiotic relationship is best illustrated be the fact that four of Pope's goals have been assisted by Gilliland.
"Arin's always had the desire (to score goals) and over the past year I've come into that role so we work well off of each other," Pope said. "We work well off of each other because we both work toward getting a goal. She's very good in pressure situations, whenever she needs help up there we work well together."
No one thing can be attributed to Pope's emergence as one of UK's most important attacking players, but her coach has a hunch where the newfound success started.
"Let's just go there and really say what happened last year," Lipsitz said, "She had zero goals and zero assists so zero points to help us last year. The biggest thing that has changed is her fitness.
"Stuart has always had an amazing mind for the game. She's extremely technical because she was so well-coached growing up so she had it all, but she had to decide to do the work. She decided to do the work and now she has become our playmaker."
Pope is in agreement with her coach: The biggest reason she's gone from no points in 20 games last season to 18 points in half as many so far this year is largely due to her offseason training regime.
"I just changed how hard I wanted to work on my fitness," Pope said. "Last spring was when I really got fit and I carried that through the summer. It changes everything when you don't get tired because you don't mess up technically.
"You don't get tired mentally because you don't get tired physically. Raising the fitness level as much as I did has helped me in all areas of soccer."
Pope had a sort of epiphany in regards to getting into better shape in an unlikely setting: on vacation.
"Last Christmas I went to Australia to visit my sister, and being over there and witnessing a lot of Australians' active lifestyles changed my opinion on everything," Pope said. "It made me start eating better. When I got back I just knew I wanted to work."
Lipsitz has indeed found the right formula during UK's current run and Pope is central to that equation, literally, but he did not always have the easiest time getting through to his star midfielder.
"She would be the first one to tell you that she did not like me her first two years here, and I don't apologize for it at all," Lipsitz said. "We always knew that Stu had tremendous potential. One of the greatest conflicts in a coach/player relationship is when the coach feels that a player is not reaching her potential."
Pope changed her nutrition plan, her offseason training and even her position. Still, an attitude change was necessary before she could integrate all her changes in preparation into on-field performance.
"My first two years in college I just had a bad attitude," Pope said. "I was always blaming other people for my mistakes. Last spring I decided to turn it around. I changed my diet, my fitness and my attitude to be more coachable. I think that has all just come out on the field this season."
The personal changes Pope undertook prior to the season and even some in-season adjustments have put her in the playing form of her life. If she can keep that form up -- which will be a challenge as UK begins its first two-match SEC weekend on Friday at home against Arkansas -- the sky is the limit for an already-effective offense that goes through a player who started the season as a defender.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, September 22:
Volleyball: Morgan Bergren
Sophomore Morgan Bergren led the Wildcats to their most complete offensive performance of the season in a sweep at Lipscomb. Bergren directed the UK offense to 40 kills on a .522 hitting clip, while the Blue and White committed just five errors as a unit in three sets of action. Bergren found seven different players for at least three or more kills. Bergren had six kills herself on a .556 hitting clip. She also contributed six digs and a trio of blocks in the win.
Women's soccer: Kayla King
Kayla King recorded her fourth shutout of the 2013 season on Friday night, making six saves en route to leading the Wildcats to the 1-0 win over Auburn. King dropped her season-low GAA to .079, as she led Kentucky to itsseventh-straight win on the year. King was forced to shot 12 Auburn shots, and a barrage of chances in the final stages of the match, as she helped Kentucky keep a clean sheet for the fifth time of the year. Kentucky is now 3-0-0 inone-goal matches this season.
Volleyball: Alexandra Morgan
Senior Alexandra Morgan was spectacular in UK's 3-0 sweep at Lipscomb on Saturday. She registered a team-high six blocks for an average of 2.00 blocks per stanza in the win. Her presence at the net flustered the Bison into a .089 hitting percentage and the home team did not hit above .100 in two of three sets. She also contributed offensively with six kills on a dazzling .750 hitting percentage.
Women's soccer: Stuart Pope
Stuart Pope connected with Arin Gilliland forPope's team-leading eighth goal of the season in the 27th minute to give UK the win. The goal for Pope was her sixth in the last seven matches since being moved up to an attacking center midfielder.
Following his program's first NCAA Tournament victory in November 2012, UK women's soccer head coach Jon Lipsitz became noticeably emotional.
"I thought about what I was going to say in this moment so many times and now that I'm at the moment I'm at a little bit of a loss," Lipsitz said just minutes after Kentucky's overtime first-round NCAA Tournament win last autumn. "This is a really special moment for this program. One of the things I talk about is leaving a legacy while you're here ... I was brought here four years ago to make it to this moment."
The huge step forward was emotional for all involved with the program that has done nothing but progress since the fifth year coach took the helm.
Last season's postseason victory marked a major milestone for Kentucky women's soccer, but UK also took another big leap forward last weekend with the program's first win over a top-10 team, at West Virginia.
Lipsitz's reaction to the West Virginia win said a great deal about the state of the 2013 team, and the program as a whole, especially considering how emotional he was following the 2012 NCAA Tournament victory.
"We went into the match at West Virginia expecting to win," Lipsitz said. "I think that's where our program is. It doesn't mean that we didn't expect that last year. That (the 2012 NCAA Tournament win) was a huge momentous occasion that can never happen again. That was the first one.
"This is just a step along the way in a long season so last year I was excited for what that meant to the program, to get over the hump. Beating West Virginia on the road, I was excited for how well we played, but it's a very small step in what will hopefully be a successful and long season."
The Wildcats were no doubt ecstatic to pick up the program's first win over such a highly ranked opponent -- with an emphatic 4-2 score line no less -- but the Wildcats' expectations far exceed one win in September.
Those in and around the UK women's soccer program wouldn't trade the noteworthy victory over West Virginia for very much, and the victory surely turned some heads around the country, but Lipsitz is using the milestone victory as a new challenge to his team. After all, UK, which entered the national polls for the first time in 2013 at No. 19 this week, begins Southeastern Conference play on Friday at Auburn.
Indeed Kentucky is looking to exorcise the demons that go along with a recent history of disappointing results following strong performances.
Take the 2012 season for example.
After an emotional upset win over then-No. 12 Louisville on a Friday night, UK fell 3-1 to Samford two days later. UK defeated top-15 Florida last season as well, but lost to Arkansas the next time out. Again after a hard-fought draw with No. 6/8 Texas A&M in late September, the Wildcats lost 2-1 to Alabama two days later. Even after the NCAA Tournament victory of UT-Martin last November, Kentucky lost to an admittedly superior UCLA team in the second round.
The 2013 Wildcats are looking to prove they're a different group. The Wildcats did well to prove that point in their first opportunity to do so two weeks ago as they topped Dayton 3-1 two days after a 2-0 win over Louisville.
The proposition is very much the same as UK will look to extend its six-game winning streak with Friday's SEC-opening trip to Auburn.
"The SEC is a different level," Lipsitz said. "We as a staff keep telling our young players that they have never experienced soccer at this level. They all thought the Louisville game was tough, but SEC soccer is another animal. I trust my captains and upperclassmen to guide them along the way, and we are looking for a great challenge from a very well-coached and extremely organized Auburn team."
It was such a quick turnaround for Game 2. It was going to be a huge challenge for us because of all the hype of the previous game against Louisville. But we came out with just as much passion, aggression and grit and tallied up a 3-1 win over a very good Dayton team. Here's an excerpt.
So now we were sitting with four straight wins and two weekend sweeps. You cannot allow that to let you get lazy or arrogant. Next up was Texas-San Antonio and West Virginia at No. 10.
After a 1-0 victory over UTSA at home, we packed up on another bus trip, this time to the mountains of West Virginia. Once there, we stepped onto the field and wasted no time. I put a goal away in the first 10 seconds of the game. We were here and making a statement. We came out with a 4-2 win over WVU.
Third straight sweep, six straight wins: We are ready to take on the SEC!
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, September 15:
Volleyball: Whitney Billings
Senior Whitney Billings began the week with 11 digs in a win over Louisville to become the sixth player in program history to amass 1,000 career kills and digs, and the first since the inception of the 25-point rally scoring era. She contributed nine kills in the win narrowly missing out on a double-double effort. In the upset-victory over No.4 Minnesota (the highest ranked opponent defeated in the Craig Skinner era), Billings was unstoppable. She went off for 25 kills on a blistering .467 hitting percentage. The hitting percentage is the highest in her career for a five-set match where she tallied 15 or more kills. With the 25 hammers she became the first player in the 25-point rally scoring era to have two matches of 25 or more kills in a single season. She also picked up 12 digs in the victory for her 35th career double-double effort. She had a season-high five blocks and was perfect from the serve-receive line as the Gophers attacked her 23 times. In the loss to Pepperdine, she reached double-figures in the digs column for the sixth time this season, while also posting a season-best three service aces.
Women's soccer: Arin Gilliland
Arin Gilliland scored seven points on the weekend, netting two goals and adding three assists in the two matches. Gilliland scored 10 seconds into the Wildcats 4-2 win over WVU, and also added another goal and two assists. Gilliland was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Week, and also named to the TopDrawerSoccer National Team of the Week.
Volleyball: Jackie Napper
Junior libero Jackie Napper has found her rhythm in her new position as she led the Wildcats in digs for the week with 3.85 per set. She logged a .966 serve-receive stat line, while registering double-figure dig efforts in every contest. She opened the week with 15 scoops against her hometown rival, Louisville. She also added four assists and an ace. Against Pepperdine she totaled 11 digs. She saved her best for last in helping UK to the biggest upset since 1993 with a career-high 24 dig performance. She coupled that with five assists and an ace. The Gophers served at her 28 times and she registered a perfect 1.000 serve-receive percentage. With the 50 digs on the weekend, she has now tallied 656 career digs which is the fourth-highest total in the 25-point rally scoring era for UK.
Volleyball: Anni Thomasson
Freshman Anni Thomasson continued to provide a spark on the floor for the Wildcats as UK upset No. 4 ranked Minnesota and Louisville who is receiving votes in the AVCA poll. The week began with a career-high 13 kill, 16-dig performance in the victory over in-state rival Louisville. She then continued her streak of 10-or more dig matches with 10 scoops in the loss to Pepperdine. In the upset victory over the Golden Gophers, Thoamsson registered her fourth double-double in five matches with 10 kills and 10 digs, while also adding a pair of blocks. She was served at 41 times in the three matches, and did not make a single error. She averaged 2.08 kills per set, good for third on the team. Here 3.08 digs per frame was second only to UK's starting libero. Her 2.58 points per game ranked third on the squad.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, September 8:
Volleyball: Jackie Napper
Junior Jackie Napper was tabbed the Most Valuable Player and earned Kentucky Classic All-Tournament teams in helping guide UK to a trio of wins this week. Napper averaged 3.91 digs and 1.64 assists per set in the three victories. She logged a season-high 19 digs in a win over VCU, while narrowly becoming the first defensive player to earn a double-double in school history with nine assists in the match. She notched 16 digs in a three-set victory over ETSU. In the final win of the weekend, Napper dished out six assists while accumulating eight digs in the victory over ETSU. Furthermore, she posted a kill in the win over VCU, her first of the year.
Women's soccer: Stuart Pope
Kentucky capped off its second-straight weekend sweep on Sunday, striking for two first-half goals and an extra in the second half to tally the 3-1 win over the Dayton Flyers. UK got goals from Alex Carter, Zoe Swift and Stuart Pope. The goal for Pope was the fourth-straight game that she has scored in, as she has five goals in the last four games. Pope was named the SEC Player of the Week last week by CollegeSoccerMadness.com.
Volleyball: Anni Thomasson
Freshman Anni Thomasson had a breakout weekend for the Wildcats en route to earning Kentucky Classic All-Tournament team honors. In the opening victory vs. VCU, Thomasson was utilized as a defensive specialist playing in the back row exclusively. The following morning, Thomasson received her first career start and played all six rotations. She delivered her first career double-double effort with a career-high 12 kills on a blistering .435 hitting clip. She notched 13 digs and added a block, while turning in a perfect performance in the serve-receive game. She remained in the starting lineup for the win over ETSU and notched seven kills, while adding eight digs and a career-high four blocks. For the week, she averaged 1.73 kills per set (despite only playing in the front row for two of the three matches). She ranked third on the squad with 2.18 digs per stanza.
UK junior midfielder Stuart Pope shoots from distance vs. Louisville. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Spend any time around Jon Lipsitz at a UK women's soccer training session -- or on the sidelines during a match -- and it becomes clear quite quickly that he puts a major emphasis on playing with a quick tempo offensively.
The Wildcat's possession-dependent system requires fast passing to keep defenses guessing and moving. The Wildcats pushing the tempo of the match was very much the difference in Friday's 2-0 victory over Louisville.
Kentucky went into halftime tied 0-0 having created the better of the first-half chances, but UK also struggled to sustain possession.
Lipsitz and his staff shouted to play faster over and over from the touch line during most of the game's opening moments, but it took until around the half-hour mark for the UK players to respond. Even then it wasn't until the second interval where the fact that the game's pace had changed became evident.
"We have to move the ball and I thought early on we were playing at a pace that was not who we are," Lipsitz said. "I said 50 times: 'faster.' Sometimes players feel like, 'I am playing as fast as I can,' but we know they can do better. So we kept pushing and I thought about the last 15 minutes of the first half we started playing better and continued that into the second half."
On both goals speed was the difference. On the opener, Courtney Raetzman capitalized on quick one- and two-touch buildup play along the left sideline before getting behind the U of L defense and playing a cross for a Stuart Pope mid-range effort near the 18-yard line.
Arin Gilliland created the second scoring chance with sheer individual speed. She ran onto a long ball over the top from out of the UK back line. With the entire pitch in front of her she dribbled into the box and at two defenders, eventually drawing a foul on the penalty spot.|
Both goals came out of playing with pace in two different ways: passing and foot speed, respectively.
"We talk about don't let somebody else set our pace," Lipsitz said. "Louisville is a tremendous team at picking off central passes and counterattacking. They are so good at it. So as we played more slowly in the back because we weren't heavily pressured we are setting up to get picked off and countered and give up a breakaway.
"We don't want their defensive pressure up top to dictate how fast we play. We have to move the ball that is who we are. We have to play to feet." Pope proves lethal since returning to attacking role
Stuart Pope has been close to unstoppable in the attacking midfield since moving back to her more comfortable creative role after starting the season as a defensive outside back.
Having found the back of the net on Friday, the junior now has four goals in three games since her positional switch. Indeed Pope has proven to be a perfect fit at the heart of the UK attack, but as early as this offseason Lipsitz himself wouldn't have believed she could be so effective up front.
"Stu has just changed who she is," Lipsitz said of his versatile junior. "She would be the first one to tell you that she did not like me her first two years here. And I don't apologize for it at all. We always knew that Stu had tremendous potential. One of the greatest conflicts in a coach-player relationship is when the coach feels that a player is not reaching her potential.
"Her confidence, her fitness, she has always been very technical and tactical but for her to be able to control the game the way she does now that is all her. She did the work. I could not be more proud of her. To imagine a year or two ago her commanding the middle of the field for 90 minutes, we imagined it but there is no way she could have done it, but now she deserves every accolade that she gets."
Pope was in many ways the Wildcats' most lively attacker from the start of the game, but on multiple occasions early Lipsitz felt she was being to patient in buildup play. He instructed her to shoot more.
The suggestion worked as she began to try her luck from distance late in the first half, and a long-range effort ended up being the game's first goal.
"He has been telling me for three years to shoot the ball more and one of these days it is going to come," Pope said. "I finally put one in and hopefully next game I can work on Jon's coaching points. I just like attacking.
"I am an attacker at heart and been an attacker my whole life. It suits my style and suits me better to attack and I can be in the right place at the right time and not have to worry about the back line." King unblemished at home.
Senior goalkeeper Kayla King has yet to concede a goal at the UK Soccer Complex this season. In three matches at home the Wildcats have kept three clean sheets.
"It was a great team shutout," King said. "The shutouts are what (Assistant) Coach Ian (Carry) and I always talk about and what we always want. It's just a little sweeter against Louisville on our home field in front of our home crowd."
Friday's 2-0 victory may have been the Wildcats' most convincing defensive performance. UK faced 13 shots, with King only called upon to save four times.
When King did come to make a save, she came strong as she decisively caught multiple Cardinal crosses and notably punched another well out of danger.
The Wildcat captain has shown impressive confidence in this, her second season as a starter.
"On your home field, you can't lose and you can't give up goals," King said. "I joke that (Associate Head Coach) Michelle (Rayner) has tricked the goalkeepers out with our team outfits. We call our kits the shutout shirts. We don't give up goals especially not at home. We earned the shutout on the practice field."
Gilliland picks power
Gilliland, UK's junior forward and captain, converted her second-half penalty with authority.
The Wildcats' designated penalty taker, who also drew the foul in the penalty box after dribbling from midfield to the penalty spot chose to go high and down the middle on her PK.
The decision was tactical ... sort of.
"To be honest on the PK I usually place them, but I was so tired I literally just kicked the (you-know-what) out of it," Gilliland said. "That was my tactic. I knew she was going to dive one way so I just decided to kick it as hard as I could." Wildcat goalies stand out. Literally.
Kayla King (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The sartorial talk around the Wildcats usually revolves around head coach Jon Lipsitz's suit selection (he wore a navy subtly striped suit with a white shirt and royal blue tie on Friday, by the way). For the Louisville game, the Wildcat goalies dominated the soccer fashion conversation as their shirts and shorts were a shade of yellow that would be most aptly compared to a highlighter.
"It looks great," King said. "I'm pretty much glowing in the dark. Coach Rayner picks out all of our stuff and she does a great job. I was surprised at this one when I came in the locker room, but I really like the look."
UK players celebrate during the 2012 UK vs. U of L game. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky vs. Louisville. Any mention of said match up is enough to make most any member of the Big Blue Nation take notice, no matter what sport.
The rival schools will face off for the first time this 2013-14 athletics season at the UK Soccer Complex on Friday evening. The Kentucky women's soccer team couldn't be happier to do the honors of kicking off the UK-U of L rivalry this year.
"We always feel like what we do means a lot to the (UK athletics) department," Jon Lipsitz said. "When we're on the field against Louisville the only thing that we can control is how well we play. Getting a great victory last year in front of all our fans that bused over was a huge moment for us."
Without doubt the Wildcats will be up for Friday's match, and UK's head coach embraces the edge that comes with such an intense rivalry. The Wildcats will need to be ready for Louisville's best shot having dominated the all-time series with an 8-2-1 advantage with wins the past two years, including last season on the road.
"Obviously every game means something special to us," Lipsitz said. "Every team needs to get our best. We need to respect the game and respect every player, but we're lying if we don't say there's a little edge on this game."
The Wildcats seemed to find their form last weekend after getting off to a less-than-ideal start to the season with a loss and scoreless draw in the first two matches of the season.
UK picked up two wins in two games against Eastern Kentucky and Toledo. Perhaps more assuring than the victories was the outburst of goals.
UK struggled to find the back of the net during the opening weekend, and following the 0-0 result with Utah, Lipsitz tinkered with his team's setup.
"My grandfather used to say, 'Never waste a good crisis,' " Lipsitz said. "After we tied Utah, as I've said, somehow we all thought it was a crisis when we tied at home. Good for us, good for the players to feel urgency like that because the result wasn't good enough."
Headlining Lipsitz's five positional changes, junior captain Arin Gilliland moved from central defense - where she normally plays when called into the United States National Team Program - to a more attacking role. The alterations paid dividends immediately as Gilliland contributed a school single-game record three assists vs. EKU and another assist against Toledo.
UK's tactical shifts undoubtedly contributed to the Wildcats' improved results during the second week, but a shift in attitude may have made the biggest difference, and it was best exemplified in a gastronomic setting.
The Wildcats passed on a long-held program tradition of enjoying dessert at the team dinner following a victory. After the win against EKU, however, the team was still unsatisfied. The UK players decided to pass on the treat until the full weekend objective was attained: two wins in three days.
"This team has always known that if we play extremely well and lose - and that happens in athletics - I'm going to proud of us," Lipsitz said. "I'm going to say the things we need to do better, but I'm going to be proud of our work. There are also days when we win games and I'm very unhappy with our play.
"We get judged on winning and losing, but it's more about our play. Our players felt we let one get away there (vs. Utah). I think it says a lot that our expectations are totally different than they were."
Freshman striker Zoe Swift was one of the major beneficiaries of Lipsitz' moves and the additional attacking chances they brought about.
Swift had shown the pace needed to get in behind opposing defenses throughout the opening weekend, but she also spurned multiple scoring chances, and was unable to get onto the score sheet. The talented youngster brought her shooting boots to last weekend's matchup as she contributed a hat trick on Friday and another goal on Sunday.
Despite struggling the opening few matches, her coach wasn't worried that she would eventually breakthrough.
"Zoe's obviously a very special player," Lipsitz said. "The thing I like most about Zoe is as good as she is, she is constantly asking what she can do better. She was an amazing player in the second half in the season opener against Wake Forest. When the game ended she came up to me and said, 'I was horrible in the first half, in the second half was good. That's not OK.' That makes Zoe easy to coach because I get to build her up since she's her own critic."
Given her self-criticism and eagerness to learn from her early struggles, it came as little surprise that when she eventually did score the goals came in nearly unprecedented numbers. Swift's three goals vs. EKU marked the first hat trick for a UK player in seven years.
Lipsitz indicated that he was most confident in his defense before the 2013 season started, and his major worry was where the goals would come from. After sacrificing some defensive experience to facilitate a more attacking offensive outfit, the Wildcats' biggest question marks are at the back.
The first step in answering some of those questions is likely to come on Friday evening.
"I am excited about the way we have attacked, but I also think we're going to be tested in new ways," Lipsitz said. "Our defense will be tested in ways we haven't been yet when we play Louisville. I think you'll find out a lot about us."