[Moderated by Matt Jones]
Tonight at 7 pm, UK Women’s Soccer “kicks off” (I had to, sorry) their season with a home game against Coastal Carolina. The Wildcats are returning nine of eleven starters (three out of four of their back line), and are looking to reignite the momentum they found last season, in which they advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. With a top-five national recruiting class, it’s safe to say the fans can expect big things from the soccer team, and the team is looking forward to delivering.
Season openers are always exciting games and can reveal much about the upcoming season. I spoke to Head Coach Jon Lipsitz this afternoon before the game to get some insight as to what he’s thinking before the season officially opens. Here’s five questions for the women’s UK soccer program that fans should look for in tonight’s game:
1) What’s the role of the women’s soccer team in the UK Athletics program?
Lipsitz talks about University of Kentucky athletics being a family (I can only assume Edrick Floreal is the crazy uncle), and we’ve witnessed multiple UK sports taking advantage of the Kentucky basketball brand. I asked Lipsitz about how the women’s soccer team fits into the athletic family, and he spoke about the excitement that comes with hosting the first home athletic event of the year. “We want to set the tone for the entire year. We take that seriously. The first athletic event of the year, our job is to create buzz with our play.”
In addition to setting the tone of success for the entire year, Lipsitz also realizes the importance of UK coaches and programs learning from one another. At Media Day yesterday, for example, Lipsitz reveals, “I took notes during Coach Skinner’s press conference. He’s been here longer. I want to learn from him, take notes of things he’s saying. As we continue to grow, these are things that will be important.”
Personally, I’m starting to see a lot of similarities between the women’s soccer team and the men’s basketball team- a young but talented team building on past success, growing media exposure, using Twitter to interact with fans, quotable quotes from the coach at press conferences- all hopefully leading to a program that consistently travels far into the postseason. Sounds familiar, no? Hopefully this time next year, Lipsitz will be driving his SEC Championship trophy to Graeter’s for a nice scoop of black raspberry chip.
2) What role will the freshmen play in the upcoming season?
This year’s roster lists fifteen freshmen. Lipsitz plans on starting four freshmen, and readily admits that the team is young. However, Lipsitz starts to sound like Coach Cal when he goes into his “talent in the great equalizer” schpiel; at Media Day yesterday, Lipsitz told reporters, “While we are young, and I’m sure there will be things to learn along the way, we are just more talented. Being talented is normally the great equalizer when it comes to being young or old.”
However, don’t confuse that with getting caught up in the sexy numbers surrounding his top-five recruiting class. When asked about the excitement surrounding the ranked class, Lipsitz is quick to emphasize that it’s not about the numbers. “Rankings of classes mean nothing until we’re on the field.” The four freshmen who will start the game have, according to Lipsitz, earned the recognition through their preseason work.
Considering this is the season opener against a Coastal Carolina team that was 2-15-2 overall last year, I think it’s safe to say that this will be a game where the freshmen will get a lot of playing time and more opportunities for coaches to evaluate their in-game play. Lipsitz is expecting a great game- he’s friends with CC’s head coach- and is looking especially to improve the things the team has worked on most in preseason: “Play fast, get wide, get in behind other teams. Defending better as a group to win the ball back quickly when we lose it. Little details day after day in preseason that need to come out when we’re playing against someone with a different jersey color.”
3) How will Arin Gilliland’s knee injury affect the team?
Sophomore defender Arin Gilliand (a West Jessamine graduate) had an outstanding freshman season, earning SEC Freshmen Team and All-SEC Second Team honors after scoring four goals over the season- including two game-winners. Gilliland was tapped to play for the USA’s U-20 team abroad this summer, and would have missed the first month of the season to travel with the team; however, her knee injury last year prevented her from taking advantage of the opportunity.
As unfortunate as that is for Arin, who would have gained valuable experience playing in the U-20 World Cup, she will be absolutely vital in anchoring UK’s back line. Arin has been cleared to play, and Lipsitz estimates she’s at 70% right now. 70% sounds nice, and it should be sufficient for these early season games; however, it may not be enough when the Cats face the Cardinals (who went to the Sweet Sixteen last year and ended the season ranked 24th) on September 7th. Tonight’s season opener will test Gilliland’s physical ability to play in a game, and although it’s possible that the coaches will pull her early should the Cats get a decent lead, it will be very revealing to see how she’s able to recover from the game and how far she is from being at peak performance capability.
4) Will this be the season the Wildcats gain national prominence?
Lots of factors could contribute to this being the season that UK Women’s Soccer becomes a nationally recognized program. First, the top-five recruiting class combined with their strong finish last year already have them on the national radar. UK’s soccer facilities and technology have been upgraded as well; Lipsitz says that the redo of the entire surface stadium means our facilities are as good as anyone else’s in the country, and the men’s and women’s soccer teams are the first in the country to both be using ProZone 3, a sophisticated video editing and display system. Also, UK Athletics will be streaming every home game live online during the 2012 season (although I strongly encourage fans and students to actually attend the games and support the team in person, I’m pretty excited to take advantage of this in Chicago). Lipsitz is a Twitter aficionado and encourages the team to use social media responsibly to interact with fans and drum up excitement for games. Perhaps most excitingly, the team has been chosen for a nationally televised game against defending SEC Champion South Carolina. The game will air on Fox Sports South at 6:30 pm on October 19. The team will be nearing the end of conference play, giving this game the potential to be an important one in determining SEC standings going into the postseason.
With so much exposure already slated for the season, the Wildcats need to take advantage of the attention to continue their streak of elite recruiting and national tournament appearances. The SEC has some tough teams, and the Cats have been picked by coaches to finish fourth in the SEC East; however, if the freshmen catch on to college play quickly enough, the sky’s the limit. This could be the women’s breakout season, especially if local fans get behind the team (shameless plug for our readers to attend the game tonight).
5) Can goalkeeper Kayla Price kill with a single glance?
Okay, maybe that’s just me. My little sister played high school soccer with Price, and I’ll be honest, I’m terrified of her on the field (off the field, she’s pretty cool from what Rachel says). I can vividly remember one high school game that went to penalty kicks, and Price had the most intense pre-shot routine I’ve ever seen: she skipped along the goal line, hitting the crossbar with every jump, then shuffled back and forth along the line, hit the ground in the center of the goal, and shot daggers at the kicker with her eyes. 99% of the time, it worked (personally, I would have run off the field in tear). The sophomore may be the most intense player I’ve ever watched in person, and that’s a key quality in a goalkeeper, who needs to have an incredibly tough mindset and the necessarily sky-high confidence to make gutsy saves. As a freshman, Price recorded a shutout in her first career start (the first true freshman to do that in school history), and six shutouts over the whole season (fifth most in program history and second most by a freshman ever). UK’s defense may be this team’s greatest strength, and I’ll give a lot of the credit for that to Kayla Price, her athleticism, and her mean muggin’. Keep an eye on her in the goal tonight- she should have a pretty easy game, but don’t expect her to take tonight’s game lightly either.
And a bonus question… will all these preseason pushups pay off?
The pressure is high, but Lipsitz thinks his team should embrace it. ”There’s lots of support here, and with that comes expectations. I told the players we’ve earned things. If you don’t work hard, you don’t get things. You have to understand that the more successful we are in the classroom, on the field, and in the community- the more we do this, the more we earn. We should not be given anything.”
The team sounds ready to compete and prove themselves. Let’s get them off to a strong start. Come out to the UK Soccer Complex at 7 pm to watch the Wildcats take on Coastal Carolina.
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