LEXINGTON – Athletics director Mitch Barnhart has made a lot of good hires to head up his sports programs at the University of Kentucky - none better than women’s soccer coach Jon Lipsitz.
The Wildcats won only five games in Lipsitz’s first season here, three years ago, but have improved to the point that UK women’s soccer appears on the brink of national prominence.
Kentucky is coming off its best season under Lipsitz, finishing 13-7-1 overall, 6-5 in the Southeastern Conference, while hosting an NCAA Tournament match for the first time since 1999.
That was the Wildcats’ first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006.
Kentucky returns 18 of 20 letter winners from 2011, including nine of 11 starters.
Asked recently how he feels about the progress made these past three years in UK women’s soccer, Lipsitz replied: “It’s as if it is two totally different programs. Everything is different. Everything.”
Lipsitz cites senior midfielder Alyssa Telang as a case in point.
“Alyssa is a perfect example of the development of this program,” Lipsitz said. “She came here pretty shy, and a little meek at times. She didn’t want to stand out. She wanted to fit in, to the point that fitting in meant not creating waves, not embarrassing someone in practice, not doing a special thing. She struggled on and off the field and had to decide who she wanted to be.
“One of the things in our program is that we push people to that edge. We force them to choose, are you in or are you out? That quote is on my (office) wall. Now here Alyssa is, a phenomenal player. She actually caused herself a little injury this summer overtraining. Now we have to worry about players overtraining.”
Telang is clearly proud to be a part of the turnaround for Kentucky women’s soccer.
“My freshman year we won five games, and it was a struggle,” said Telang, a native of Shelby Township, Mich. “Every year we have just been working on creating this new culture that has been based on hard work, discipline and family.
“Different people add different qualities to our team, and it’s just amazing how much we have changed. We have freshmen coming in and setting a higher standard for seniors every day the last couple years.”
Telang and senior defender Brooke Keyes from Mission Viejo, Calif., are the captains of the 2012 team that opened the season with a 2-0 win over Coastal Carolina last Friday and hosts Eastern Kentucky this Friday at 7 p.m.
Seven Kentuckians are on UK’s roster, including sophomore Arin Gilliland from West Jessamine High. Gilliland scored two game-winners for the Wildcats last season as a freshman and made the All SEC second team.
This season’s Kentucky roster will include 15 freshmen, and Lipsitz expects all of them to join the Wildcats’ aggressive culture.
“We are going to be incredibly young,” Lipsitz said. “But while we are young, we are just more talented. Being talented is normally the great equalizer when it comes to being young or old. That’s where we are.
“The competition in practice has been fierce. I mean, fierce. Alyssa talks about it being fun. That’s what they want. We had an exercise in practice today where they were doing competitive runs in the box, tripping over each other, and it was very physical. As a coach, you have to decide how far to let them go.
“They don’t like to be held back. They want to get after one another. I think one of the things about the freshmen is that the way you earn respect is to battle somebody. You don’t earn respect as a freshman by placating the seniors and going, ‘You’re a senior, so I’m not supposed to play hard.’ You go after them.”
“It’s all about working hard,” Telang said. “It is so awesome to have freshmen so willing to come in and work hard and do all the little things. It’s just really cool to come out and compete and get better.”
UK’s road schedule includes a Sept. 7 battle at Louisville, at 7:30 p.m.
Here’s a look at the Wildcats’ home slate:
Aug. 24, Eastern Kentucky, 7 p.m.
Aug. 31, UNC-Greensboro, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 9, SE Missouri State, 2:30 p.m.
Sept. 14, Florida, 7 p.m.
Sept. 16, Mississippi State, 1 p.m.
Sept. 28, Texas A&M, 7 p.m.
Sept. 30, Alabama, noon.
Oct. 19, South Carolina, 6:30 p.m.
Oct. 21, Auburn, 2:30 p.m.
Oct. 26, Vanderbilt, 7 p.m.