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Video: Women's soccer season pump up 2013

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UK Women's Soccer captains Arin Gilliland, Kayla King and Ashley VanLandingham. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK women's soccer captains Arin Gilliland, Kayla King and Ashley VanLandingham. (Chet White, UK Athletics)

Coming off what was by all accounts the best season in the 21-year history of Kentucky women's soccer in 2012, junior captain Arin Gilliland doesn't mince words when it comes to looking forward.

"Every year you step out on the field at a university you want to be better than the year before," Gilliland said. "When we bring the freshmen and the newcomers in we set a standard for them. The standard this year is to get further than we were last year."

The Wildcats reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2012 for the first time in school history on a dramatic extra-time golden goal at home. As important and emotional as that breakthrough was, matching that success won't be enough in 2013.

Such is the way head coach Jon Lipsitz operates. 

"We are continuing to try to move the group forward," the fifth-year coach said. "We're continuing to challenge them, as we always do as a part of our culture, to get better every day, which gives us a chance to every year do better than the year before. That's part of how we've been building this program: day by day."

Fight from day one

The 2013 Wildcats will waste no time measuring themselves against the caliber of squad they're likely to face come NCAA Tournament time. UK travels to play a team ranked as high as No. 10 nationally in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Friday for the season opener.

"We gave them a huge challenge at the beginning of this year," Lipsitz said. "We're going to play Wake Forest, who is a top-15 team. They are going to be (ranked) a lot higher than that at the end of the year. I know their roster very well, I know (Wake Forest head coach) Tony (da Luz) well, so I wanted to start there right away and challenge us."

The UK players have proven themselves willing to embrace any obstacle, even when that challenge entails long road trips to face the best. The Wildcats chose the term "fight" as their official team slogan for the 2013 season. Given the opportunity to face elite competition, the Wildcats are more than eager to step inside the lines and put their mantra into practice, wherever it may be.

"This first game against Wake Forest is going to (help) decide our season," Gilliland said. "It's really going to give us the push we need to see where we stand when we get to the SEC (portion of the season)."

Indeed Kentucky's unprecedented expectations aren't just coming from within the team. The league's coaches picked UK to finish second in the SEC Eastern Division this season, the team's highest predicted finish since Lipsitz took charge of the program five years ago.

The Wildcats aren't paying attention to voices outside the team going into the season though. Instead, they're looking forward to testing the work they've put in this offseason right off the bat.

"If we are going to achieve in the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, we've got to find out from the beginning what our strengths and weaknesses are," Lipsitz said. "This is the way we do that. I believe the players come here to want to play a great schedule, and so what a great way to start the season,"

Squad takes shape

At first glance, the 2013 UK defense might look to be a glaring weakness. Two starters from a season ago graduated and both were center backs. Contrary to initial analysis, however, Lipsitz considers his defense among the team's strongest units.

Lipsitz's confidence is inspired largely by the fact that his two active captains - senior goalie Kayla King and central defender Gilliland - will ply their trade at the heart of the defense. 

Instead the UK coach's biggest concern heading into 2013 is where the goals will come from.

"Even though we lost those two starters it's a very new identity this year," Lipsitz said. "We're still working on that. We have to challenge them to find out where we are. I know that we're going to be very tough at the back with Kayla in the net and Arin at center back. 

"I think we're going to be extremely strong there. What we're finding out in training is how we're going to score goals."

Despite Lipsitz's concern, UK does return plenty of attacking firepower.

Including Gilliland - who played forward for much of the 2012 season, but will start 2013 as a defender - UK's entire 2012 front line returns in 2013. Gilliland, Kelli Hubly and Caitlin Landis contributed a combined 17 goals and 16 assists in 2012. 

Still Lipsitz will be the first to tell you a soccer coach is always looking for more goals. He will have plenty of options when he looks for more players to chip in when it comes to the goal count. Seven of the nine the starters returning to the lineup are underclassmen.

Leading the way ... from the back line

Lipsitz has established a culture of constantly challenging his players, but he's not the only one in the program doing so. He relies on his team's veterans to hammer home his message throughout the team, especially with so many underclassmen on a young squad.

In 2013 those responsibilities will fall to seniors King and Ashley VanLandingham and junior Gilliland. Lipsitz' described the process of selecting his standard-bearers as "a no-brainer."

Each of the three will take on different responsibilities, which - at least in Lipsitz's opinion - should work out because all captains have different leadership styles.

King has a unique vantage point of everything occurring across the pitch in front of her, and like many goal keepers, she uses that to her advantage as an on-field leader. 

"We try to keep (the young players) accountable," King said. "Jon has stressed details, as he always does. I know if they don't listen to those details it's also my job to tell them to step it up."

But King also serves as the team's inspirational leader both vocally and by example. Wildcat players and fans alike can briefly look at King's college career path and take encouragement.

The senior goalie started at UK as a walk-on and by her head coach's accounts, not a very good one at that. Following two years of not seeing much game action, she decided to change her ways. 

King started that change by focusing on her fitness.

She invested in the staff's workout and diet regimen and, perhaps more importantly, committed to what her coaches were telling her to do while in the goal. The changes paid off in 2012 as she started 16 of 18 matches and emerged as one of the top goalkeepers in the SEC.

As important as her vocal leadership will be in 2013, UK's players will also have King's overall path within the program as a source of inspiration.

While the Wildcats may look at King's path as an unlikely route to success with Gilliland they can follow a player who performed throughout her career at the lofty levels expected of her.

And she sets quite the standard. 

Considered one of the nation's top players entering the season, Gilliland has carried the flag for UK at some of the highest levels of the game. The All American's experience includes having been called up to the United States U20 and U23 National Teams as well as having trained this past summer with world-class players like Alex Morgan at the Portland Thorns.

"Arin Gilliland is only a junior, and it's rare for us to have junior captains because a lot of loneliness goes along with being a captain," Lipsitz said. "You are isolated when you're a captain. You have to hold people to standards, but Arin is our standards-bearer. She is the example for achievement. 

"She's also our fiery leader. She's the one who on game day will get into you if it's not happening. Arin has learned to have more of a gentle style at times, but I don't want her to change. She is who she is, and if you're not working as hard as she is, you're going to know about it."

Gilliland will be able to rely on her vast top-level experience as she steps into a heightened leadership role. 

Kentucky will also look to VanLandingham, who will miss the entire season with a knee injury, as a captain.

"She has this unique ability to lead by pushing and by cheerleading," Lipsitz said. "There's a gentle balance between that because people need someone being their cheerleader to support them no matter what. Typically people are either one or the other, but she has this unique way of giving you a kick in the butt while she pats you on the back."

By her coach's estimation the senior defender - in spite of a hard-luck injury situation - will still be able to bridge the gap between King and Gilliland's leadership styles. It will just be something she does from the sidelines this season.

Training to face the challenge

The Wildcats have made no bones about the high expectations they set for themselves for 2013. UK is facing a long and tough stretch of hurdles, beginning the first weekend of the season, so they're being smart about how they prepare.

In fact, they're taking a scientific approach.

So-called "High Performance" training, which focuses on sports science to devise the right intensity to impart in workout regimens, has become a major topic of conversation across Lexington in recent months. 

The new UK football coaching staff's High Performance program is making in waves across college football, but Lipsitz and his staff have relied on similar principals of player development for the past four seasons.

Wildcat players rarely go through their paces without being tracked by heart-rate monitors, GPS units and overhead camera systems. The cutting-edge technologies give the staff tons of data, which helps them manage the team based more on facts than outward appearances or gut feelings. 

"Our strength and conditioning staff is amazing here," Lipsitz said. "The involvement they let me have creates a very special relationship. I trust them, and they listen to me. It's their job to implement it. 

"We like to individualize everything here for players' development, it really clicked with us and it's made a big difference."

King may be the prime example of that difference in action. 

When she began to work on improving her fitness, maintaining key factors for effective goalkeeping was paramount. But holding on to the skills needed to be a good goalie while working to get in better shape is easier said than done. 

Conventional wisdom dictates a goalie should avoid endurance activities. Such exercises are often detrimental to the short burst-style workouts designed to develop the explosiveness expected of quality net-minder. 

That has not been the case with King's offseason training regimen. Instead the UK senior has thrown in multi-mile runs every week to build a base fitness level. Indeed the data shows that the right endurance work does not harm athletic explosiveness as mainstream thinking may suggest.

Such outside-the-box thinking has become a hallmark of the UK women's soccer strength and conditioning program.

"I've done a huge amount of research and what I don't want is our players going on these hard long runs because it absolutely kills their fast twitch muscle fibers," Lipsitz said. "We want someone like Kayla training either at about 60 percent heart rate or above 90 percent. That middle ground does nothing for her.

"We want her going out for long slow runs, which just deepens her base fitness. When it's time to go hard the next day she's in what we call the 'red zone,' which is 90-to-100 percent heart rate for her explosiveness. It's a balance. We devised something that works for her."

Kentucky will need to continue striking that balance starting Friday. UK will play two matches nearly 400 miles apart in three days this weekend, quite the undertaking in a sport as physically demanding as soccer. 

Yet just like all the other challenges they've faced so far, the 2013 Wildcats expect to meet the task head-on. 

Live stream: Fall sports media day

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At 1 p.m. ET on Tuesday, coaches and student-athletes from four UK fall sports teams - volleyball, cross country, women's soccer and men's soccer - will preview their upcoming seasons at fall sports media day. Here's the schedule:

1:00 p.m. - Volleyball head coach Craig Skinner and student-athletes Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan
1:15 p.m. - Cross country head coach Edrick Floreal and student-athletes Cally Macumber and Matt Hillenbrand
1:30 p.m. - Women's Soccer head coach Jon Lipsitz and student-athlete Kayla King
1:45 p.m. - Men's Soccer head coach Johan Cedergren and student-athletes Tyler Riggs and Jack Van Arsdale

You can watch it all live below.


Women's soccer junior Arin Gilliland is spending July training with Portland Thorns FC of the National Women's Soccer League. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Women's soccer junior Arin Gilliland is spending July training with Portland Thorns FC of the National Women's Soccer League. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In just a year, life has changed drastically for Arin Gilliland.

Last summer, the star defender/forward was in the middle of an intensive rehabilitation process. She suffered a torn ACL and partially torn meniscus in the 2011 Southeastern Conference Tournament and was hoping her surgically-repaired right knee would be healthy for the start of her sophomore season. Whether she would regain her All-SEC form, Gilliland had no idea.

This summer, those concerns have melted away. Gilliland is spending July with Portland Thorns FC, a professional team playing in the National Women's Soccer League's inaugural season. She won't take the field for any games, but she will participate in all other team activities.

Instead of doing strength and flexibility exercises by herself, she'll be practicing with the likes of Alex Morgan, Rachel Buehler and Tobin Heath - all three members of the United States National Team. A slight improvement.

"Oh my gosh, you have no idea," Gilliland said. "It's a million times better."

It all came about in a hurry.

UK head coach Jon Lipsitz was in Portland, Ore., visiting family when he caught up with John Galas, an assistant with the Thorns. Galas explained how the team had brought in top college players to train and be introduced to a professional environment, asking whether UK had any candidates. Without hesitation, Lipsitz told Galas all about Gilliland, the versatile rising junior who starred at both outside back and forward, scoring a team-best 21 points. Lipsitz knew what that kind of experience could mean for a player of Gilliland's caliber.

"In order to continue her to her highest potential, which I believe is a full national team player, she is going to have to continue to take these journeys and these challenges to find out the next level," Lipsitz said. "To train and be with some of the best players in the world is going to show her what being a professional is all about."

Gilliland - in San Diego for Under-23 National Team camp at the time - hesitated even less when Lipsitz called to ask whether she was interested.

"There really wasn't any thinking to do," Gilliland said. "I just said, 'Yeah, I'd love to.' "

So Gilliland, following a three-week family vacation in Hawaii and a brief return to Lexington to work UK's day camp, paid her own way to Portland due to NCAA rules on July 1. Within hours, she was at a bowling alley to celebrate Christine Sinclair's birthday with the Thorns.

"What was so weird is it wasn't even like they were famous," Gilliland said. "They were just normal girls and this is their everyday life. It was kind of cool to see the different aspect of them."

Her month in the Northwest is going to be about a lot more than just team outings though. From practice to film sessions to weight training, Gilliland will be there.

"I get to be a part of the team as much as I want to be a part of the team," Gilliland said. "If I wanted to not go to film, I wouldn't have to go to film. Or if, the next day, I didn't want to go to weights, that's how it goes. But obviously I'm going to go to everything because with an opportunity like this, you don't just pass it up."

That kind of attitude is exactly why Lipsitz knew Gilliland would thrive in Portland. Gilliland has been a standout from the moment she set foot on campus, but something about her was different in 2012.

"One of the things that people don't get to see because they aren't with Arin every day is how dramatically she has changed off the field in the last year," Lipsitz said. "She has changed with how she has taken care of herself, from nutrition and sleep to finding times to recover and her daily commitment to being a professional has totally changed in the last year."

As unpleasant as last summer may have been, coming back from that knee injury had a lot to do with that change in Gilliland's mind.

"Not being able to play and having to sit the sidelines and getting a glimpse of what it's like to be the player on the bench and to be in that supporting role kind of opened my eyes," Gilliland said. "It really helped me mature as a soccer player. I'm more organized, I'm more punctual and all of the aspects I was missing I feel like it's really contributed to making me an all-around better player now."

Now, Gilliland is in the middle of an experience that Lipsitz hopes will show her what's next.

"I want her to see what being a professional truly means so that she can see the steps that she next needs to take and has models in order to do that," Lipsitz said. "I think having players that she can model herself after is very important in our country no matter what field you want to be in."

Somewhat ironically, the first step in that process has been Gilliland coming to understand just how similar she is to her role models. By getting to know players she's long idolized on a personal level, Gilliland's goals of playing professionally and eventually making the national team seem much more accessible.

"It kind of makes it almost real for me, to know that it is possible," Gilliland said. "These girls are just like me and every other girl with aspirations and dreams to do this with their life."

In the short term, Gilliland is looking to prove to herself and everyone else that she's capable of competing at the highest level. Portland has just three healthy backs on its roster, creating an opportunity for Gilliland to do just that.

"During training I'm going to get a lot of looks," Gilliland said. "I want to get my name out there and show them what I can do for this team and maybe in the future possibly coming here. My main goal is just to show I'm capable of playing at this level right now, so two years from now they can only expect more."

On a more personal note, Gilliland wouldn't mind taking on the most famous women's soccer player in the world either.

"Other than that, I definitely want to go 1-v.-1 with Alex Morgan," Gilliland said. "I mean, who doesn't?"

The University of Kentucky celebrated its 146th May Commencement on Sunday. (photo by Mark Cornelison) The University of Kentucky celebrated its 146th May Commencement on Sunday. (photo by Mark Cornelison)
During the University of Kentucky's 146 May Commencement on Sunday, 49 UK student-athletes received degrees. Forty-seven earned undergraduate diplomas and two received graduate degrees.

(Note: Includes student-athletes who received degrees after their completing eligibility.)

Baseball
Thomas McCarthy
Zac Zellers (Will complete coursework this summer)

Football
Aaron Boyd
La'Rod King
Quentin McCord
Craig McIntosh
Kevin Mitchell
Matt Smith
Taylor Wyndham
(Note: 2012 seniors Mikie Benton, Gabe Correll, Gene McCaskill, Morgan Newton, Cartier Rice, Collins Ukwu, Steven Duff and Sam Simpson graduated previously.)

Gymnastics
Caitlyn Ciokajlo
Storey Morris
Whitney Rose

Men's basketball
Twany Beckham
Marquis Estill
Jon Hood
Jarrod Polson (Graduated in three years)
(Note: Jamal Mashburn also received an honorary doctorate of humanities.)

Men's golf
Joseph Barr

Men's soccer
Pedro Andreoni
Gabriel Conelian
Barry Rice

Men's swimming and diving
Jon Bullock
Jon Keltner
Ben Russell

Rifle
Heather Greathouse

Softball
Chanda Bell
Kara Dill (Graduate degree in exercise science)
Alice O'Brien
Erika Silence

Track and field
Katy Achtien
Keith Hayes
Ben Mason (Will complete coursework this summer)
Chelsea Oswald
Shiara Robinson
Josh Nadzam (Masters of social work)
Danielle Sampley
Rashaud Scott
Samantha Stenzel
Hiruni Wijayaratne
Megan Wright

Volleyball
No graduates this weekend, but seniors Ashley Frazier and Christine Hartmann had already graduated.

Women's basketball
A'dia Mathies
Crystal Riley

Women's golf
Megan Moir

Women's soccer
Natalie Horner
Brooke Keyes

Women's swimming and diving
Megan Eppler
Lindsay Lash
Mandy Myers
Sherrill Thompson

Women's tennis
Khristina Blajkevitch

The 2013 DanceBlue marathon raised $1,113,189.42 for the fight against cancer. (photo via DanceBlue) The 2013 DanceBlue marathon raised $1,113,189.42 for the fight against cancer. (photo via DanceBlue)
For 24 hours in a row, University of Kentucky students danced away their Friday and Saturday, and it was all for a great cause.

Memorial Coliseum played host to the eighth annual DanceBlue marathon, where a record $1,113,189.42 was raised for the fight against pediatric cancer. After the final total was revealed on Saturday evening, participants learned of a $500,000 endowment fund started by the late Joy Wills, who beat cancer three times and supported DanceBlue during her life.

"This year, with a record number of 800 dancers, DanceBlue was able to raise over $1.1 million for the Golden Matrix Fund to support cancer research at the Markey Cancer Center and child-life initiatives in the DanceBlue Kentucky Children's Hospital Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic," said Ethan Ritter, DanceBlue's 2013 Overall Chair. "It was a wonderful 24 hours that united our entire campus and state."

Include UK Athletics in that too.

Wildcat student-athletes, coaches, teams and the department at large lent their support in myriad ways. Multiple coaches - including John Calipari and Matthew Mitchell - took to the stage to encourage dancers, one of whom was former UK wide receiver La'Rod King. Any visitors to the marathon left in awe of the dedication and passion of the participants.

"I was blown away by the number of students in that gym Friday night dancing and raising money to fight pediatric cancer," Coach Cal said. "As I told them Friday, they may never do anything more meaningful than what they did with DanceBlue. It is hard to do something by yourself, but to come together like they did and raise more than a million dollars warms my heart. It will make a tremendous difference in the fight against cancer."

The women's soccer team took an even more active role.

The women's soccer team presented a check for $4,000 at the DanceBlue marathon. (UK Athletics) The women's soccer team presented a check for $4,000 at the DanceBlue marathon. (UK Athletics)
In September, the Cats held their second-annual "Kick Cancer" match. Inspired by a young fan who lost her battle with brain and spinal cord cancer, players wore special gold jersey that were later auctioned off. In addition, $1 from each ticket sold to UK's match against Mississippi State was set aside. With that money, the women's soccer team presented a check for $4,000 to DanceBlue.

"It means a lot for us as a team to be able to give back to the Lexington community and donate to something that we strongly believe in," head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "Allison Berger was someone who touched all of our hearts and so we will continue to do everything we can to fight this awful disease in her honor. Yes, we want to win games and win championships, but just as important is winning off the field, and this cause means a lot to our players, coaches, staff and university."

The donation by the women's soccer team instigated a little good-natured competitiveness from a fellow UK program. Volleyball head coach Craig Skinner, in addressing dancers, announced his team would hold a match of its own next season to benefit DanceBlue.

"I personally challenge Coach Lipsitz the volleyball team will raise more money than the soccer team next year," said Skinner before going on to propose the losing coach shave his head. Lipsitz may want to amend that wager considering he has substantially more hair to begin with.

Friendly jabs aside, DanceBlue - which has raised more than $5 million since its inception- has grown into something few could have imagined when it began in 2006. That good work will surely continue with or without the involvement of UK Athletics, but that involvement is appreciated nonetheless.

"The support from our athletic community was terrific," Ritter said. "Visits from our coaches got our dancers excited, the only thing they cheered more for were our clinic families. Our continued use of Memorial Coliseum for the event and the special events hosted by teams like women's soccer shows that UK Athletics truly takes interest in supporting events that improve our community."

Video: A look at the new UK Soccer Complex

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Take a look at the video above to see complete renderings of the UK Soccer Complex, which will be the home for Kentucky's men's and women's teams beginning in the fall of 2013.

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