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."
On Monday, the Kentucky women's soccer team learned it will host a NCAA Tournament first-round game for the second season in a row. The Wildcats will take on UT-Martin on Friday at 7 p.m. ET at the UK Soccer Complex.
Watch the video above to see the team's reaction to making the NCAA Tournament and stay tuned for more coverage later.
Football - Linebacker Avery Williamson, who entered the game leading the league in total tackles, had a career-high 20 tackles. He is the first UK player with 20 or more tackles since Chad Anderson made 21 tackles against Georgia in 2003. - Kentucky has an open date Nov. 10 before returning to action Sat. Nov. 17 at home vs. Samford. Kentucky entered the weekend having played the toughest schedule in the nation, according to Anderson and Hester computer ratings used in the official BCS rankings.
Men's basketball - Kentucky was paced by a team-high 22 points from freshman Archie Goodwin in the win over, NAIA's No. 1 ranked team, Northwood. - Fellow freshman Nerlens Noel added a double-double effort with 17 points and 11 rebounds. - The meeting with Transylvania will mark the final preseason competition for the Cats, before UK travels to Brooklyn, N.Y., to open the Barclays Center with a season-opening contest against Maryland on Friday.
Volleyball - The 17 victories guarantees UK a winning season for an unprecedented eighth-consecutive season under UK coach Craig Skinner. - The Wildcats were paced by senior Ashley Frazier as she averaged 4.29 kills per set on an impressive .362 hitting percentage. Frazier had a career-high 20 kills against the Rebels to couple with a career-high eight digs in the win. - Senior setter Christine Hartmann directed the offense to the tune of 15.80 kills per set on a .372 hitting percentage. - Senior libero Stephanie Klefot continues to be an anchor for the Wildcats from the back line. She was perfect on her serve-receive attempts and averaged a squad-best 4.14 digs per set. With 29 scoops on the weekend, she became just the fourth player in SEC history to tally 1,800 or more digs in a career.
Women's soccer - Kentucky bowed out of the SEC Tournament to Missouri in the quarterfinals 2-1 in Orange Beach, Ala., on Wednesday. - Caitlin Landis scored UK's lone goal on Wednesday. Landis has scored three goals in the last two games.
Men's soccer - The Wildcats have been led offensively by Tyler Riggs and Matt Lodge, who have accounted for 14 goals (Riggs-7, Lodge-7) combined through 18 games .The duo has also connected for six assists (Riggs-4, Lodge-2) during the regular season. - UK will travel to Hoover, Ala. for the C-USA tournament game at 6:00 p.m. ET vs. Memphis.
Rifle - The University of Kentucky rifle team defeated No. 15 North Carolina State and The Citadel on Saturday, shooting a 4686 in the triangular match in Charleston, S.C. - Junior Emily Holsopple shot a personal-best 590 in smallbore. - Sophomore Jonathan Pinkel and freshman Luke South recorded personal bests in air rifle, Pinkel shooting a 591 and South a 590.
Women's golf - The UK women's golf team finished in sixth place at the Alamo Invitational with a score of 11-over-par, 875. - The squad set a program record with a final round of 6-under-par, 282. The Cats broke the previous school record of 284 for a round, which was set during the 2009-10 season. - Kentucky had two top-25 finishers as Ashleigh Albrecht placed tied for 22nd at 2-over, while Cylia Damerau was tied for 25th at 3-over.
Cross country - Cally Macumber was named Southeastern Conference Cross Country Runner of the Year on Friday. - The Rochester Hills, Mich., native won the SEC Championship Race on Oct. 26 and owns the SEC-best times at both 5,000 meters and 6K. She was also named a First Team All-SEC runner. - Macumber was the first Wildcat to win the women's SEC Title since Valarie McGovern won the conference meet in 1989. - The Kentucky cross country teams return to action on Nov. 9 for the NCAA Southeast Regional in Charlotte, N.C.
Swimming and diving - Kentucky divers junior Greg Ferrucci and freshman Rebecca Hamperian each picked up wins in the 1-meter and 3-meter events Friday against Auburn. - For the third consecutive Friday, sophomore Lucas Gerotto won the 100-butterfly (49.25) and has bested his time each meet. His sister, sophomore Julia Gerotto, earned her first win of the season with a victory in the 200-butterfly (2:02.44) while also picking up a second place finish in the 1000-freestyle (10:15.39).
Jon Lipsitz and the Kentucky women's soccer team will open play in the SEC Tournament at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday against Missouri. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
On Wednesday, the Kentucky women's soccer team opens play in the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Orange Beach, Ala. At 8:30 p.m. ET, the Wildcats will face a rematch with the Missouri Tigers, a team that handed them a 2-1 overtime loss less than a month ago. It's also a matchup of two teams hoping to position themselves for a bid to host a game or two in the NCAA Tournament.
In other words, UK has plenty to play for.
After closing out the regular season last Thursday with a 3-0 victory over Vanderbilt, Jon Lipsitz could have gone all in on this Missouri game, turning to every conceivable measure to win it. With the talent of the Tigers, it certainly would have been understandable if he had, but Lipsitz has chosen another path.
It's not that he doesn't want to win or that he doesn't respect UK's opponent. The fact is that Lipsitz has chosen to approach this week as one long tournament, not a series of games.
"We have to understand that we're trying to build not just toward one game," Lipsitz said. "We're trying to build toward multiple games. That's our goal in single-elimination situations: to play multiple games."
What that has meant over the six days since the Cats last played is plenty of rest to allow them to recover from the grind of having played 19 matches in a little more than two months. When they have practiced, the sessions have been short and sweet.
"When you're training for one game, it's very different from training for multiple games so we've treated this more like training for an entire tournament because that's our plan," Lipsitz said. "Therefore it's been very crisp and very detailed, but short training sessions."
The approach is a bold one, because neither Lipsitz nor any player on the roster has yet won a postseason game at Kentucky. Last season, UK lost its first match in both the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. Two years ago, the Cats fell in penalty kicks in the SEC Tournament to South Carolina before missing out on an NCAA big.
For the most part, Lipsitz has stayed away from changing what he says to his team with the postseason set to begin, with a notable exception.
"The one thing that I have said is that we're in postseason time now and this senior class has never won a postseason game," Lipsitz said. "We've got both the SEC Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament coming up. It's time for this program to take the next step. I think putting those expectations out there is important because those are our expectations."
Outside of that, Lipsitz is coaching the same as he did during a regular season that saw UK go 13-5-1 and earn the No. 4 seed in the SEC Tournament. The reason why he hasn't had to talk to a team with a sophomore - Arin Gilliland - and two freshmen - Courtney Raetzman and Kelli Hubly - among its top three scorers about the increased intensity of playing in a one-and-done format is the leadership of UK's five seniors.
"Quite honestly, the last time I felt this way about leadership was my last two years at Charlotte," Lipsitz said.
The two 49er teams to which Lipsitz compares these Wildcats won a combined 34 games and reached back-to-back NCAA Tournaments.
"It takes time to build leaders in a mold that you want as a coach," Lipsitz said. "This says absolutely nothing negative about the leadership that we've had before, but it takes time and it takes multiple leaders."
With that kind of leadership, Lipsitz has found that he doesn't have to concern himself as much with making sure his team is in the right frame of mind. He's not shirking that responsibility, but he trusts his veterans to set the tone.
"The other thing leadership allows coaches to do is stay more even-keeled," Lipsitz said. "If I'm not having to be the emotional center of a team and the players can be the emotional center, then coaches can coach and can worry about the tactics."
That's a particular luxury with Missouri looming.
The Tigers represent a marked contrast in style with UK's possession-based attacking approach, relying on athleticism to create chances while the Cats prefer to use passing to do so.
"We're just very different teams," Lipsitz said. "They are an extremely physical team, they are very direct, their backs want to get the ball forward as fast as possible and they want to get the ball behind the other team as fast as possible."
The Tigers used that approach to create 19 shots when they hosted and defeated the Wildcats on Oct. 5. Only one time this season has UK allowed more shots in a game.
"There are many different ways to play this game, just like in any sport," Lipsitz said. "There are lots of different ways to win and they've been very successful their way and we've been successful our way. It's not right or wrong, we're just different."
The winner of the UK-Missouri match - which will be live streamed on the SEC Digital Network - will go on to face either top-seeded Florida or No. 8 seed Ole Miss on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET. The Cats are loving their beachfront hotel and temperatures in the mid-70s, but the biggest reason why they want to stick around Orange Beach is because they are enjoying each other's company so much.
"It's just about spending time together right now," Lipsitz said. "We've been in a bus all (Monday) and we were still in a bus (Tuesday) and we're enjoying ourselves. We're enjoying being together and I think that speaks for itself."
The way things look right now, soccer fans in Lexington might have a few more chances to see matches after the end of the regular-season schedule.
Both the Kentucky men's and women's soccer programs appear to be locks for the NCAA Tournament and, with the two programs riding late-season hot streaks, hosting a game or two is looking like a more realistic possibility.
Let's take a look at the resumes for each:
Men's soccer Record: 9-6-1 (4-1-1 Conference USA) Last five matches: 4-1-0 (won four straight) RPI: 14 (best in school history) Key RPI wins: at No. 8 Louisville, at No. 22 Tulsa, at No. 26 UAB Worst loss: at No. 57 Dayton
After starting the season 1-4-0, the Wildcats have put together a remarkable six-week stretch against one of the nation's toughest schedules in Johan Cedergren's first season as head coach.
UK has two regular-season games remaining against UCF and South Carolina on Wednesday and Sunday, both at home. After that, the Cats will travel to Birmingham, Ala., for the Conference USA Championship from Nov. 7-11. The bracket for the NCAA Tournament will be announced on Nov. 12.
Forty-eight teams receive bids to the NCAA Tournament in men's soccer, with 16 receiving first-round byes. Teams seeded 17-32 will host first-round games on Nov. 15 against teams seeded 33-48 for the right to travel to face the top-16-seeded teams in the second round on Nov. 18.
With UK's strong RPI, a first-round bye is not out of the question, particularly with a solid finish over the next two weeks.
Women's soccer Record: 13-5-1 (8-4-1 Southeastern Conference) Last five matches: 5-0-0 RPI: 26 Key RPI wins: No. 9 Florida, at No. 13 Tennessee, at No. 39 Louisville Worst loss: No. 128 Samford (played in Louisville)
Outside of a six-match stretch during the middle of the season when UK won just once in six tries, it has been a banner season for Jon Lipsitz's team. The Cats are the No. 4 seed in the SEC Tournament and will play fifth-seeded Missouri on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET with potential semifinal and final matches to be played on Friday and Sunday before NCAA selections are announced on Nov. 5.
A victory in the conference tournament would likely assure Kentucky of hosting an NCAA Tournament game for the second time in as many seasons. Sixty-four teams will be in the field, with the top 32 hosting first-round matches Nov. 9-11.
With No. 9 Florida and No. 31 Missouri on UK's side of the SEC Tournament bracket, the Cats will have opportunities to grab resume wins and potentially the right to host beyond the first round.
Football - The UK defense continued to improve, limiting Missouri to 273 yards of total offense which was the lowest number of yards UK has allowed all season. - The Wildcat defense also created a season-high three turnovers in the game, getting two interceptions and a fumble recovery. J.D. Harmon was impressive in the effort for Kentucky, earning a career-best seven tackles on top of the two interceptions.
Volleyball - Senior setter Christine Hartmann narrowly missed out on a triple-double with nine kills, 52 assists and 11 digs against Tennessee. She directed four players to 10 or more kills in the match including 19 on a .472 hitting clip from senior Ashley Frazier. - With 21 digs against UT, senior Stephanie Klefot moved into sole possession of fourth place on the SEC all-time career digs leader list. - In the victory over Georgia, UK saw Hartmann lead the defensive effort with a career-high 19 digs. She passed out 58 assists and again found four players for 10 or more kills. - Freshman Sara Schwarzwalder led the defensive effort for the weekend with team-highs in blocks in both matches including matching a career-high eight in the victory against the Bulldogs. Women's soccer - UK's eight SEC wins marks the most conference wins for the Wildcats since the 1999 season. It ties a program record for most SEC wins in a season. - The Wildcats have shut out four of the last five opponents they have faced, as goalkeeper Kayla King has only allowed one goal in the last 422 minutes of action in the net. - UK finishes the season having six different freshmen score a goal, as the class accounted for more than 30 points on the season.
Men's soccer - Jack Van Arsdale notched his fourth shutout of the year and UK got splendid play from defenders Steven Perinovic, Jacob Kemper, Jacob Speed and Isak Krogstad in a win at No. 23 Tulsa. - UK has improved to 6-2 on the road in 2012, with the Wildcats tied for the second-most road wins in the NCAA entering the Saturday win.
Rifle - The No. 2 University of Kentucky rifle team defeated No. 15 Tennessee-Martin 4656 - 4577 Sunday in Barker Hall. - Freshman Connor Davis led the Wildcats with an aggregate score of 1170. - Junior Aaron Holsopple finished with a match high in smallbore, shooting a 582. Women's soccer - Senior Jessica Stiles finished the weekend 3-0 in singles play and 2-1 in doubles. Stiles' play left her in second for singles champion, one point off first. - Junior Khristina Blajkevitch capped off a perfect singles weekend with a 6-1, 6-1 win on Sunday.
Cross country - Cally Macumber achieved a feat no other University of Kentucky Wildcat had accomplished in 23 years when she won the SEC Cross Country Championship by a four-second margin with a time of 20:23.29 in Nashville, Tenn., on Friday. - The UK women placed fifth overall, while the men finished sixth. - Luis Orta was the first Wildcat to finish on the men's side in 24:10.83 over 8K. - Three Wildcats earned spots on the All-SEC teams by virtue of their performances at the Conference meet as Macumber and Oswald were named to the First Team, while Orta made the Second Team. - Macumber and Oswald each received All-SEC honors for the second time in their careers. Orta, a senior, reached All-Conference status for the third time.
Swimming and diving - The Kentucky men and women's swimming teams picked up their first wins of the season against Southern Illinois in a tri-meet. - Kentucky's men were led by sophomore Lucas Gerotto who picked up his second victory in the 100-butterfly (49.70) and took third in the 50-freestyle (21.15). The men also earned their first relay victory of the season in the 4x100-freestyle as Chris Lott, Will Heidler, Gerotto and Chris Thomas combined for the winning time of 3:05.62.The women pulled out two wins with senior Mandy Myers taking home first in the 100-buttefly with a time of 55.53. Sophomore Christina Bechtel earned her first win of the season as well with a win in the 200-butterfly with the winning time of 66.10.
Monday, Oct. 29 Women's golf at Alamo Invitational (San Antonio, Texas)
Tuesday, Oct. 30 Women's golf at Alamo Invitational (San Antonio, Texas)
Wednesday, Oct. 31 Women's soccer vs. Missouri (Orange Beach, Ala.) - 8:30 p.m. Men's soccer hosts UCF - 7:00 p.m.
Thursday, Nov. 1 Men's basketball hosts Northwood - 7:00 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2 Volleyball hosts Ole Miss - 7:00 p.m. Men's tennis at Collegiate Clay Court Tournament (Orlando, Fla.) Swimming and diving hosts Auburn - 2:00 p.m. Women's soccer SEC Tournament Semifinals (Orange Beach, Ala.) - TBA
Saturday, Nov. 3 Men's tennis at Collegiate Clay Court Tournament (Orlando, Fla.) Rifle at North Carolina State Football hosts Vanderbilt - 12:00 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 4 Volleyball hosts South Carolina - 1:30 p.m. Men's tennis at Collegiate Clay Court Tournament (Orlando, Fla.) Men's soccer hosts South Carolina - 1:00 p.m. Women's soccer SEC Tournament Championship (Orange Beach, Ala.) • TBA
Senior defender Natalie Horner helped UK to a 3-0 shutout of Vanderbilt on Senior Night. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Three years ago, a group of Kentucky freshmen watched Senior Night festivities. The players on the field for their final home game were fairly certain that no postseason berth lay ahead, that the end of their college career was at hand.
"That Senior Night was actually really rough," senior defender Alyssa Telang said. "We lost 4-1 to Ole Miss, but those seniors were here last weekend on Alumni Weekend and it was cool to see them. It's crazy to think of the freshmen that we were then and the seniors we are now."
Their own Senior Night may have seemed a lifetime away back for Alyssa Telang, Kirsten Robinson, Brooke Keyes, Cassie Ransdell and Natalie Horner - then spending a season a redshirt following her transfer from Michigan - but on Thursday night, it arrived.
The circumstances, though, were quite different from back in 2009.
Instead of reminiscing about their careers on Senior Night, this group was more concerned about looking forward. These seniors have too much still to play for.
"I don't think that it's really different tonight for the seniors than any other night," UK head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "They know what we're playing for and they're the ones that decided that we weren't going to have any craziness in the locker room before the game."
By "craziness," Lipsitz is referring to giving presents to the seniors, something customarily occurs in the locker room immediately before the game. UK's five seniors opted instead to move any gift-giving to the morning of the game, clearing the Cats' schedule and their minds for an important match against Vanderbilt.
"That takes a lot of focus and puts it on the seniors and doing it for them," Telang said. "But our class, we wanted it to be about soccer and our team, not us."
Entering the 2012 regular-season finale, UK had already locked up a bye in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. With a top-25 RPI, these Wildcats were playing more for the right to host in the NCAA Tournament than just to make it.
By defeating Vanderbilt 3-0, UK (13-5-1, 8-4-1 SEC) closed out SEC play on a five-match winning streak, the longest in the regular season since 1999. The win also secured at least a five seed for UK in the SEC Tournament and means the Cats will face a rematch with Missouri in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
Junior Caitlin Landis delivered the game-winning goal in the 52nd minute following a scoreless first half. Minutes later, she added her third goal of the season. Freshman Kennedy Collier would score the first goal of her career in the 74th minute for the final margin.
Telang and these seniors will take their experience over the one they witnessed as rookies any day.
"It's almost like a relief because we know we're good, but we've got to continue to know that we have a target on our back," Telang said.
Painting these seniors as lucky to be in a better situation would be unfair, because they have been instrumental in transforming UK from a 5-9-4 team in 2009 to one that is thinking about playing - and advancing - in the postseason.
"It's so hard for me to put into words who these seniors are as human beings," Lipsitz said. "You can see that they're great student-athletes, but they're just special people."
Typical on-field Senior Night festivities preceded the game, complete with flowers and hugs and family members, but the seniors got another nice moment in the waning minutes. With all five on the field, Lipsitz substituted for them as one big group, embracing each on her way to the bench as the crowd cheered.
There will be plenty of time for more such emotional displays once the season is over, but these Cats are all business right now. They now will prepare for the SEC Tournament, which begins on Wednesday, with an eye on enhancing their resume for what comes after.
With no match this weekend, the first step in that process is taking it easy for a couple days.
"A lot of rest, a whole lot of rest," Lipsitz said. "I'm going to take off recruiting, the team's going to get some rest and then we'll come back together and we'll build toward a great game on Wednesday."
With momentum on their side and a steady senior class to guide them, it would be unwise to bet against the Wildcats.
"Ever since that loss against Ole Miss (on Oct. 7) I think that we've come out and we've competed extremely hard every day in practice," Telang said. "It's not just winning and losing in games. It's winning and losing in practice. Every drill is winning or losing and it's become so competitive that we get wins in games."