Replacing arguably the two best players in back-to-back seasons is never going to be an easy task for a D1 NCAA Women’s Soccer program.
Just ask Jon Lipsitz, head coach of the SEC’s Kentucky Wildcats, who’s had to do just that in replacing Arin Gilliland last season and finding a way forward without Courtney Raetzman this season. Both departed club legends are currently playing in the National Women's Soccer League with the Chicago Red Stars, underlining the quality both brought to the Wildcats for four seasons.
The necessity of replacing such talent has meant that Kentucky has learned some hard lessons during the first three weeks of the season with a non-conference schedule described by some close to Lipsitz as 'insane.'
With a schedule that would prove testing for almost any club, much less one still trying to find its feet, the Wildcats have seen glimpses of quality interspersed with moments of madness.
That much was evident in the opening weekend of the season when the Wildcats scrapped for a draw against a solid Long Beach State team before taking a tough defeat at Pepperdine a few days later. Frustration perhaps hit a boiling point a week later when UK lost to South Florida, 3-2, despite leading the Bulls by two goals at one point. It was the first time that Kentucky had lost in regulation at home when up by two goals since 1994, when many of Lipsitz’s players had yet to be born.
After that painful setback, Kentucky got a chance to display a “resilience” that Lipsitz was quite proud of. The head coach of the Wildcats pointed towards the response to that loss as a potential turning point for UK’s season when all is said and done in December.
Lipsitz spoke of not mincing words with the players about the USF loss and the (unfortunate) historical precedent the defeat had set. In Lipsitz’s words, the information “stunned” his team, and the response would be seen starkly less than a week later on a big stage.
Faced with a potential ‘make or break’ match against heated rivals Louisville last weekend, Kentucky stepped into a lion’s den on enemy turf and used smart counter-attacking and ruthless finishing to perhaps save their season with a 3-1 win. Lipsitz noted that coming into the match, his side “were up against the wall in terms of the RPI,” making Friday’s victory all the sweeter.
There hardly could have been a better time for a first win than against rivals for a sixth straight season in an occasionally spiky contest. A further win against High Point got the Wildcats back to the all-important .500 mark right before Southeastern Conference play commences.
Despite preseason injuries taking a toll on depth, especially on defense, the Kentucky head coach was quick to point out the chemistry with the players of the Wildcats and how he felt that despite this year’s side not being the most individually talented of his tenure in Lexington, it was a group that still functioned as much more than just the sum of its parts.
Such a reality will likely hold UK in good stead in one of the nation’s most notoriously competitive and unpredictable conferences.
Earlier than any other conference in the nation, the SEC starts its league schedule in week four, which is a blessing and a curse for its members. The upside is the ability to schedule intelligently to increase the amount of rest between grueling and punishing conference matches. But the very real downside is going into these high pressure battles when barely a quarter of the season has been played.
However, Lipsitz notes that he feels that his club “is more prepared than they would have been with a different schedule,” with his players embracing the challenge of testing themselves in the opening weeks of the season to prepare them for the grind of SEC play over the next few months.
Despite some testing moments, Lipsitz also asserted that he was “extremely happy” with the growth of his Wildcats over the first quarter of the season.
While Thursday is hardly going to by a tipping point for Kentucky’s league campaign, they could not have asked for a more difficult matchup than overwhelming league favorite Florida. The Gators’ sole loss on the season was a narrow extra time defeat to Stanford in Palo Alto, and otherwise, they’ve looked nigh-unstoppable.
The offense for Florida, led by Savannah Jordan put seven goals up against Oklahoma State last Sunday. Seven goals in the second half in a 7-2 drubbing.
Lipsitz was more than willing to acknowledge the potency of both Jordan and the Florida offense, knowing that stifling that free flowing attack will be the only path to a positive result on Thursday night.
The Kentucky head coach was quick to call Thursday’s opponents “the best attacking team in the country this year,” with that full complement of weapons on display through the first three weekends of the season. Interrupting that attacking rhythm was pinpointed by Lipsitz as one of the keys for Kentucky’s gameplan on Thursday night.
Jordan will be the focal point of the offense for Florida as she has been for over three seasons, with Lipsitz admitting that the old adage of ‘not being able to stop a star player but only being able to contain her’ certainly applied to the senior forward.
The Kentucky coach accepts the fact that Jordan will get opportunities in front of goal but was adamant in his belief that the Wildcats had to limit those opportunities and make life harder on Jordan if his side are to have any chance of success on Thursday night.
Though the path through the 2016 season has been bumpy to this point, Lipsitz asserts that the program’s preseason goals have not shifted in response to some rough patches in the first few weeks of the season. While the postseason isn’t a birthright in Lexington for the women’s soccer program, it is still the expectation that burns within Kentucky, even after failing to reach the NCAA Tournament in 2015.
Lipsitz notes that given some of the challenges facing his team early in 2016, Kentucky may have to get back to that goal of the NCAA Tournament “in a different way than planned,” than when this season was mapped out.
Free-flowing football and razor-sharp short passes may ultimately take a backseat to grit and counter-attacking nous. But such qualities served Kentucky well last weekend and may carry them forward through the next few months. If it breeds an upset on Thursday, it might help carry them further yet.