In recent years, UK Athletics has made unprecedented strides in fielding a comprehensive athletic program. Twice in the past three years, the department has finished 29th in the final Director's Cup standings, a impressive mark, but not yet reaching the top-15 level Mitch Barnhart set as a goal as part of his 15 by 15 by 15 plan.
Historically, the fall sports season has put UK Athletics in a position of having to play catch-up in the winter and spring. Volleyball, men's soccer, women's soccer and cross country all complete the championship portions of their schedule in November or December. Each team has had its moments, but those moments have rarely coincided.
In 2012-13, it's been a different story.
UK is one of just six schools nationally to reach the NCAA Tournament in men's soccer, women's soccer and volleyball, joining Washington, UCLA, North Carolina, Marquette and Notre Dame. Moreover, UK is one of just three programs to host a first-round game in all three sports along with Washington and UCLA.
Volleyball has been a mainstay in the tournament, receiving bids in each of the last eight seasons, but the success of the two soccer teams is new. Women's soccer has now reached back-to-back NCAA Tournaments under Jon Lipsitz, including this season when the Wildcats won a game for the first time in school history. Meanwhile, Johan Cedergren's team was ahead of schedule in his first season, hosting a tournament game for the second time in school history.
The lone fall Olympic program at UK not to reach the team portion of the NCAA Championships was cross country, but individuals from both the men's and women's teams were represented in the individual portion. Cally Macumber and Chelsea Oswald each earned All-America recognition with top-40 finishes, while Luis Orta finished 114th, impressive for a runner participating in the race for the first time. All in all, the early returns in Edrick Floreal's first season leading UK track and field and cross country were very good.
Of course, the final piece of the fall puzzle is football, and UK recognizes just how important that program is to the department as a whole and, just as importantly, the Big Blue Nation. The 2012 season may not have gone as planned, but the coming weeks could lay the foundation for a bright future with a new coach set to be named soon.
Football - Kentucky was impressive both on offense and defense in a win over Samford. Offensively, Kentucky posted 455 yards of total offense including 342 on the ground, while the UK defense limited Samford to 102 yards of total offense - which was the lowest output by a UK opponent since 1996. - True freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow went 10-of-13 for 66 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 59 yards and a rushing touchdown. Junior Raymond Sanders led the team in rushing with 123 yards and a TD. - Linebacker Avery Williamson paced the defense with 13 tackles, including two sacks, becoming the first player since 1990 to have four straight games with 13 or more tackles.
Men's basketball - Freshmen Alex Poythress and Nerlens Noel led the effort against Duke as Poythress scored 20 points, while Noel contributed 15 points and eight rebounds. - Kentucky used sharp shooting in going over the century mark in the 101-49 victory over Lafayette. Kentucky's .645 shooting from the floor as a team was the best under fourth-year head coach John Calipari and best for any UK team since 2008. - Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer hit a career-high seven 3-pointers. Poythress charted a career-high 22 points to become the first freshman to have back-to-back 20-point efforts since Brandon Knight in February 2011.
Volleyball - Junior Alexandra Morgan shined in a 3-1 win over Georgia with nine kills on a .400 hitting percentage, but it was her defense that proved the difference. Morgan had a career-high 10 blocks to accompany three aces and four digs. The 10 rejections was easily a career high and it marks the first 10-block performance by a Wildcat since Lauren Rapp had 10 blocks in an NCAA Tournament victory back in 2010. - UK honored the senior class of Ashley Frazier, Christine Hartmann and Stephanie Klefot before the match. Frazier had nine kills, Hartmann a double-double with 45 assists and 13 digs, and Klefot a match-high 19 scoops in the victory.
Women's basketball - UK's first road trip of the season wasn't a very pleasant one as the Wildcats dropped an 85-51 decision to No. 1 Baylor in the programs' first-ever meeting. It didn't help that UK shot its lowest shooting percentage since 2008, netting just 27.1 percent from the field. Senior guard A'dia Mathies led UK with 12 points, while sophomore guard Bria Goss added 11. - UK regrouped and charted an 80-46 win over High Point on Saturday, hitting 50 percent from the field (30-of-60) and forcing 32 turnovers on season-high tying 19 steals. Mathies once again led the way, scoring all 17 of her points in the first half. Junior forward Samarie Walker pulled down a season-best 12 rebounds to go along with six points, three assists and three steals.
Women's soccer - UK fell to No. 5/6 UCLA in the second round of the 2012 NCAA Women's Soccer Championship, ending their season with a 14-6-1 mark. - It was the first time UK had ever advanced in the NCAA Tournament in 20 years of competition. - Kentucky finished the season with a 2-1-1 record against top-15 teams in the country, knocking off No. 12 Louisville, No. 13 Florida and earning a draw with No. 6 Texas A&M.
Rifle - The Kentucky rifle team shot a 4693 on Saturday but fell to top-ranked TCU. - Freshman Connor Davis tied a program best in air rifle with a 597. Senior Henri Junghänel led the team with an aggregate score of 1185, shooting a 590 in smallbore followed by a 595 in air rifle. Cross country - Cally Macumber capped a great season with a sixth-place finish at the NCAA National Championships on Saturday. She finished the 6K race in a season-best time of 19:42.20, fewer than 15 seconds behind the race winner. She is the highest NCAA finisher for the Wildcat women since Valerie McGovern was the national runner-up in 1989. Macumber became the first woman in UK history to complete a 6K race in less than 20 minutes. - Chelsea Oswald also had an impressive day as she came in 37th with a time of 20:13.00. Both Macumber and Oswald earned All-America honors, marking the first time since 1988 that multiple UK women were garnered that recognition in the same year. - Luis Orta also impressed by finishing with a time of 30:52.30 in his first NCAA Championship appearance.
Swimming and diving - Kentucky's men's and women's swimming teams earned second place finishes in the Volunteer Invitational this weekend. The Wildcats earned strong individual performances from freshman Matt Roman and junior Lucas Gerotto on the men's side, while sophomore Julia Gerotto, senior Mandy Myers and senior Megan Eppler led the way for the women. - Junior diver Greg Ferrucci had a big weekend, sweeping the 1-meter (369.95), 3-meter (410.90), and the platform (383.35) events over Tennessee and Duke.
Men's soccer - Kentucky fell to No. 19 Xavier, 1-0, in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. - UK hosted just its second NCAA Tournament game in the history of the program and its first since 2003. UK's NCAA Tournament berth was also its first in nine seasons, with the Wildcats making its fifth all-time postseason appearance.
Wednesday, Nov. 21 Men's basketball hosts Morehead State - 7:00 p.m. Volleyball at Missouri - 8:00 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 23 Volleyball at Auburn - 4:00 p.m. Women's basketball hosts Morehead State - 4:00 p.m. Men's basketball hosts LIU Brooklyn - 7:00 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 24 Football at Tennessee - 12:21 p.m.
The Kentucky women's soccer team continues its NCAA Tournament run on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET vs. UCLA in San Diego. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
There's no place the Kentucky women's soccer team would rather have made history than in front of its home fans. When the Wildcats won the program's first-ever NCAA Tournament game over UT Martin on Friday night, having their supporters there to rejoice in the victory with them made it that much more special.
There's no place UK would rather continue its postseason run than the UK Soccer Complex, but things have not worked out that way. Since the Cats will have to leave home in search of NCAA win No. 2, they want it to be an occasion.
"We had a great home game in front of our crowd and of course wish we were home again," UK head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "But if we're not going to be home, let's make it a big deal."
Lipsitz and the Wildcats want to go somewhere they will always remember to play an opponent they will never forget.
"Let's really go someplace," Lipsitz said. "Let's go play the best. Let's go out west. Let's go someplace that's new and exciting."
They are getting their wish.
Kentucky's second-round game will take place in San Diego far from Lexington both in terms of distance (it's more than 2,000 miles away) and climate (Wednesday's high temperature in Lexington is 44 degrees, 68 in San Diego).
The opponent awaiting UK is new too, and certainly fits Lipsitz's "play the best" criteria. The Cats (14-6-1) will face third-seeded and sixth-ranked UCLA (16-2-2) for the first time in program history on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET. The Bruins have made every NCAA Tournament dating back to 1997, reaching at least the second round each time. UCLA has 45 NCAA wins to UK's one and, according to Lipsitz, is one of "four or five" teams most talked about as national championship contenders.
"I have all the respect for UCLA," Lipsitz said. "I have all the respect in the world for what they've accomplished in the past and what they're doing this year."
There's a lot to respect.
UCLA owns an 8-1-1 record against the 64-team NCAA field and has outscored its opponents 44-11 this season. The Bruins have posted shutouts in 11 of their 20 games and their attack is led by the Pac-12's leading scorer and Player of the Year Zakiya Bywaters. Lipsitz and his team have the proper respect for their opponents, but fear doesn't accompany it.
"We couldn't care less about that," Lipsitz said. "That's what people will talk about and they'll talk about us as this upstart team or a big underdog. And we are. We are a big underdog and that's great. We're going to go and we're going to have fun and we're going to play hard."
The Cats are not without reasons to be confident.
Three times this season UK faced a team in the top 18 of the final RPI rankings. UK twice came away with wins (vs. No. 8 Florida and at No. 15 Tennessee) and tied once (vs. No. 18 Texas A&M). UCLA was sixth in the final RPI release on Nov. 5.
"I have a lot of confidence in our players," Lipsitz said. "I have a lot of confidence in their ability to be ready for the matchup and we're just excited to get there."
The Wildcats have had an historic season by playing a possession-based style and refusing to change their approach no matter the opponent. UK will of course prepare for the Bruins, but playing an elite opponent with the ability to turn mistakes into goals in an instant won't make the Cats something they're not.
"It's who we are and we're not going to change that," Lipsitz said. "We have to be who we are. Yes, anybody we play there's a scouting report and there are nuances that UCLA will give us, but the number one thing is we have to be who we are. And we're a possession team and we want to knock the ball around."
UK's will to stay true to that was tested in the first round.
Playing a UT Martin team with a plan designed to attack them, the Cats got off to somewhat of a sputtering start, turning to long passes and direct play more than they had for most of the season. Considering he started a lineup featuring four freshmen, Lipsitz wasn't totally surprised by the uncertain first half.
He wasn't surprised by the way the Cats settled in either.
"As the game went on, we became more and more a possession team knocking it around," Lipsitz said. "I think we were a little tight early in the game they made it difficult to play it through the midfield and we got a little bit too direct. As the game went on, we got better and better at it."
Considering the circumstances, that was particularly impressive.
In spite of a handful of good chances, the match remained scoreless late into the second half and into overtime. The Cats knew one bad touch or errant pass could spell the end of the season, but they persevered. Eventually, Arin Gilliland and Kelli Hubly combined for the golden goal minutes into the first period of overtime.
"To have put the work we did and to win the first NCAA game in the history of this program was a special moment and we're enjoying it," Lipsitz said.
That first NCAA victory has been a stated goal for the team all season and really since Lipsitz arrived four seasons ago. The Cats put great pressure on themselves to deliver it and deserve to celebrate it, but they are not resting on their laurels.
Leading up to the first-round game, Lipsitz was asked whether he was concerned a letdown would follow should UK beat UT Martin. At the time, he thought a lapse in focus for the second round was a possibility. Now that the moment is here, his concerns have evaporated.
"I was worried about it, but not now," Lipsitz said. "Not now that I've seen them. They just want to play. They want to get back out there. They want to show who we are."
With those worries gone, the Cats turn their attention to UCLA. Plenty of new worries over facing a talented Bruin team could take their place if the Cats thought that way. But they don't.
UK doesn't have to overcome two decades of tradition or undo any of the Bruins' impressive victories this season. All UK has to do is be better on Friday.
"The great thing about playing in this format is there's 90 minutes and it's 11 versus 11 and we're going to do our best," Lipsitz said.
Women's soccer won the first NCAA Tournament game in program history on Friday night over UT Martin. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Jon Lipsitz knew this day would come.
When he accepted the head coaching position of Kentucky women's soccer, he was certain the Wildcats would deliver the program's first ever NCAA Tournament win. It was his vision.
With a 1-0 win on Friday night at the UK Soccer Complex, his team proved him right.
"I was brought here four years ago to make it to this moment," Lipsitz said.
Lipsitz even knew this was the year it would happen.
"We've been sitting in the office for three years going, '2012, 2012, 2012,' " Lipsitz said. "And that doesn't mean we didn't think it could happen before. We almost did it last year, but it was our dream that we knew it was going to happen this year. We knew."
The moment, however, did not come easily against a game UT Martin squad. The Cats and Skyhawks remained locked in a scoreless tie through 90 minutes of regulation play. UK stayed true to its possession-based style, holding the ball for the majority of the game, but failed to capitalize on 12 shots, six of which were on goal.
"UT Martin presented an unbelievable tactical challenge to us," Lipsitz said. "It was a classic soccer game of a team looking for their one moment and us trying to keep them from that moment while finally finding the goal."
For the second year in a row, the Cats headed to overtime in a first-round NCAA Tournament game. In 2011, UK would eventually fall in penalty kicks to Washington State. This time, a senior who was on the field for that loss had no intention of letting the outcome be determined in the same way. She let her team know about it.
"(Natalie) Horner was very clear with the team at the beginning of overtime that we were not going to PKs. Very clear," Lipsitz said.
So clear, in fact, that he walked away from the huddle and essentially let his team run itself. But not before drawing up the play that would win the Cats the game. It seems, in fact, that just as Lipsitz knew this day would come, so too did he have a good idea how its decisive moment would happen.
"He literally drew up the goal," Arin Gilliland said.
With Skyhawks swarming Gilliland, Lipsitz recognized UK's sophomore forward likely wouldn't be adding to her team-leading goal total.
"Before overtime I took out my pad and I drew Gilliland going central like that and they were running four players at her and I said to her, 'You are not going to score the goal, it's not going to happen,' " Lipsitz said. " 'There is no way you are going to get through that many players. Even if you do there is going to be a fifth and a sixth.' "
With Gilliland drawing the attention, Kelli Hubly went wide. Gilliland fed her and the freshman forward put away the game winner.
"I actually did not think it was real life," Hubly said. "When I got the ball I was thinking, 'What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?' Every day at practice we work on those, and I said, 'Oh, I just have to hit it past her.' "
It turns out the situation was yet another one Lipsitz foresaw.
UK was on the field this morning what he expected to be a casual walkthrough, but Lipsitz heard something that concerned him. Working on the exact breakaway situation on which she would score just hours later, the words "I'm not good at these" escaped Hubly's mouth. To Lipsitz, that was unacceptable.
"We don't really work on anything except for walking through the day of the game, but I pulled some balls out and made her do that repeatedly," Lipsitz said. "We made all of our forwards do that because from film we knew that would be the way to score."
When game time arrived, Lipsitz pulled Hubly aside to hammer his message home: self-assuredness is a must.
"I made her say over and over 'I'm going to score a goal, I'm going to score a goal, I'm going to get a breakaway, I'm going to score a goal,' " Lipsitz said. "It's just so special because it's one thing to coach, it's another thing when players respond."
Right again, Coach Lipsitz.
Now that everything Lipsitz believed would happen has come to pass, what's next?
Well, UK almost certainly faces a West Coast trip to face the winner of second-seeded San Diego State and Cal State Northridge. Before refocusing on doubling UK's all-time NCAA win total, the Cats are going to savor No. 1.
"The next step, it starts Sunday," Lipsitz said. "Saturday, it doesn't. We're going to enjoy this for a little while but it starts Sunday. You have to get that first one to take the pressure off, to know that this is what we are about. For me, I'm going to enjoy this because we can never do this again, that's the special thing about the first."
UK played an NCAA first-round game in front of 1,065 fans in 2011. The Wildcats will host for the second year in a row on Friday at 7 p.m. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Last season, it had been since 1999 that the Kentucky women's soccer team had earned the right to host in the NCAA Tournament. But in Jon Lipsitz's third year as head coach, the Wildcats did just that.
After another successful 2012 campaign, the Cats ensured there would not be another decade-plus-long wait for the next time the postseason would come to Lexington.
UK learned late on Monday afternoon it would begin its run in the NCAAs on the same field where Senior Night festivities were held less than two weeks ago. Having done it in back-to-back seasons, the message is clear.
"To do it the second year in a row, this is our standard now," Lipsitz said. "This is who we want to be every year."
The Cats don't want things to be quite the same as last year though. This time around, they want to advance. In last year's first round, UK lost in dramatic fashion to Washington State, falling in penalty kicks in front of a crowd of 1,065, third largest among the 32 first-round sites.
The players can remember what the atmosphere was like at the UK Soccer Complex last November. When they take on Ohio Valley Conference Tournament champion UT Martin (13-5-3) at 7 p.m. ET on Friday, they expect a similar one.
"It was so hard to hear anything on the field, even a teammate next to you," senior Alyssa Telang said. "It's going to be really exciting. Big Blue Nation is awesome."
The Wildcats have set reaching this point as a goal from the beginning of the season, but their RPI of 33 left their bid to be one of 32 first-round hosts in doubt. In the end, marquee wins over Florida and Tennessee made the difference.
"We feel like we've earned the bid," Lipsitz said. "We worked very hard. From the beginning of the year, we started keeping notes on our big wins and we started talking about the need for our big wins so the NCAA committee would see that."
Now, the team is looking for a few more.
It starts with the Skyhawks on Saturday. For all of their accomplishments, members of UK's senior class have not yet won a postseason match. Changing that would be a fitting sendoff for a group that Lipsitz credits for transforming the culture of his program.
"We had the chance last year and we fell short," senior Natalie Horner said. "This year, we've been taking it one game at a time, but this game is by far the biggest game. We're so excited to be playing and we have a lot of work to do this week, but winning this game would be awesome for us."
The coaching staff has long been preparing to put the players in position to do just that. Recognizing UK's talent, Lipsitz and his assistants have been quietly compiling scouting reports on potential NCAA opponents for the past month.
"One of the joys in coaching this team this year is we knew from pretty early on that we had the talent to make the NCAAs," Lipsitz said. "And we knew early on that if we just fulfilled our destiny, if we just believed in one another, that we would be at this point. It's allowed the coaches to do a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure we were ready for this moment."
Even so, the process of learning about UT Martin is only just beginning. Lipsitz will be compiling the book on the Skyhawks Monday night before hitting the practice field with his team on Tuesday. Regardless of what he uncovers, the focus in training will be primarily internal.
"The number one thing is we have to take care of ourselves," Lipsitz said. "Obviously we'll get as much information on the opponent as we can, but the most important thing is take care of ourselves. The most important thing is to play the brand of soccer that we believe in, for us to play our best and then there's nothing more we can control."
What that means is plenty of work over the next few days. Lipsitz was interviewed about the NCAA bid in front of his players and when he was asked what this week will entail, he answered of "Great, fun," with a wry smile. His words were meant by knowing laughter, suggesting the Cats are well aware of what is ahead of them.
"It's a pretty simple choice at this time of year," Lipsitz said. "Either you've turned in your gear and you're doing nothing or you're working your tail off to win another game."