Jon Lipsitz knew what he had to do even before he landed the job as coach of the Kentucky women's soccer team.
He made that clear when he met with Mitch Barnhart, UK's athletics director.
"When I interviewed with Mitch, he asked about building this program and how to make it special," said Lipsitz, now in his fourth season as coach of the Wildcats. "I said to him, 'There's a player, Arin Gilliland, who lives right down the road. And if the University of Kentucky can't keep a great player like Arin Gilliland home, then we have no chance to be special.' "
Lipsitz, then coaching at Charlotte, said his first priority if hired by UK would be to land Gilliland.
"I had watched her play many times and we always say our job is to keep the best at home," he said. "But I think that this was another level of 'best' that I don't think Kentucky has ever seen as a youth player, so I specifically referenced her in my interview."
Lipsitz got the job and his recruit.
Gilliland, a sophomore from Wilmore, has helped UK to an 8-3-1 start (3-2-1 Southeastern Conference). An outside back, she is tied for second on the team with 10 points (three goals, four assists).
Her path has not been smooth.
Never mind a torn ACL last year.
About the time Lipsitz was interviewing with UK is when Gilliland's mother, Letita, was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Soon, the cancer spread, taking her life last April.
Arin brought Letita plenty of joy, though. Rising from second-team all-state as a freshman at West Jessamine, Arin finished her high school career as an All-American and Kentucky's Miss Soccer.
With her mother's health failing, Arin chose to graduate from high school a half-year early.
"We weren't sure of the time frame she had, and I really wanted her to be able to come here and see me play a few games," Arin said. "Because that's what she's always dreamed of. She's always talked about 'I want to be able to watch you play college soccer' and all that. She always thought I was going to go to like UCLA. ... I decided to come here for her."
Letita lived to see not only spring matches, but a regular season in which Arin earned second-team All-SEC and Freshman All-SEC honors.
"The fact that she got to see me play some games, and more than I ever dreamed of, was awesome," Arin said.
Then came the torn ACL in her right knee, an injury that knocked her off the national U-20 squad.
Lipsitz says that her comeback is due to "pure work" and rehab. And, most importantly, mental toughness.
Lipsitz says that Gilliland was about 75 percent healthy at the start of the season and is about 95 percent now, "and I doubt our opponents can tell she's not 100 percent."
"It's more mental than physical," Gilliland said. "Because, yeah, it's a new knee. But everything's the same fundamentally. It's all in your head. If you can overcome that battle, you've got it all."
She doesn't wear a knee brace and, when icing, sometimes forgets and puts the bag on her left knee.
"I'm on pins and needles on the sideline every game, every time she goes down, and I'm thinking 'oh, my gosh — no, no, no!" said Arin's father, Bruce. "But according to Dr. (Darren) Johnson, that knee's stronger than the other one now."
Arin is strong from within.
But she credits her West Jessamine coach with an assist.
"Kevin Wright gave me my drive, my motivation, even a little bit of my craziness," Arin said. "Jon kind of gets mad at me because I kind of snap back and stuff, but I think I learned that from Kevin Wright. He put the fire in me. And he got me my shot."
That shot makes her a threat whenever she gets a touch.
"It's hard to have a player like that and move her to the back line, it really is," Lipsitz said. "But if you want to be a great team and you want to be good in possession — which is the style that we're building now — you need great soccer players on the back line."
Gilliland, who has played outside back and in the middle on the national level, says she likes playing back. She gets the best of both ends — she has defensive responsibilities but, playing mostly on the outside, she is able to push up the field and attack.
Through her trials, mental and physical, Gilliland has maintained a zest for life.
A self-professed wanna-be hippie, she boasts of having a natural talent for making animal noises and other sound effects, ready to perform upon request. (Asked by a reporter, she offered a choice of a sheep, gorilla, and Avatar bird and war calls. She came through with a spot-on gorilla.)
Kayla Price, who shares UK goalkeeper duties with Kayla King, has known Gilliland since they were 5.
"For her to go through all the things she's been through in such a short period of time and still be funny and just laughing and loving life is a true testament to her personality," Price said. "She doesn't let anything slow her down. ... A great personality. Very mentally strong."
It's a special story when the hometown-area athlete becomes a hometown-school hero, Lipsitz said.
Especially when the athlete has overcome so much.
And a landscape addition to the UK soccer complex serves as a reminder.
"Jon and them actually put up a butterfly bush over here, and we have a little thing with my family — the butterflies are kind of a symbol of my mom," Arin said. "... Whenever I'm out here warming up and I see a butterfly, I think of her. Just the fact that she got to see me play here, I know she's still looking down and watching me."
Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com