First-year Kentucky men's soccer coach Johan Cedergren got off to a slow start, but his Wildcats are looking to finish with a flourish.
Kentucky makes its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003 on Thursday night when it plays host to Xavier at the UK Soccer Complex.
"This is the first step in building our program to where we want it to go," said Cedergren, a native of Sweden who was Dartmouth College's top assistant before taking the UK job last December. "I am so proud of this group and can't wait to experience the NCAA Tournament with them and all of Big Blue Nation on Thursday."
UK lost four of its first five games under Cedergren before turning the corner in a 1-0 victory at Louisville on Sept. 14. The victory over the Cards triggered the first of two four-game winning streaks for the Cats and a 9-4-2 finish.
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Thursday's Xavier-Kentucky winner advances to play at No. 16 overall seed Indiana on Sunday at 1 p.m., in the 48-team tournament.
Kentucky, coming off a third-place finish in the Conference USA Tournament, is making its fifth appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Tyler Riggs leads UK with 18 points, netting seven goals with four assists this season. First-team all-conference midfielder Matt Lodge has seven goals and three assists, while senior Charley Pettys has six goals and three assists.
Xavier has outscored its opponents 47-19 in 2012. Luke Spencer leads the way with 13 goals and seven assists.
"This is his third year and this is the third year he's dancing," Cedergren said Wednesday of Xavier's coach. "In many ways, two years from now we're hoping to be where Coach (Andy) Fleming and his team are currently. So it's really exciting to get such a good team to come here. They like to play just like we do, so I think it's going to be a really good game that way."
Cedergren, who played collegiately at the University of Cincinnati, looks fondly upon the opportunity to play Xavier, where he earned a master's degree.
"It never hurts to beat Xavier, I would say," the UK coach said. "Those were three very hotly contested games when I played, and we were maybe a little better than they were at the time, but that was the game of the year for them. They would come in and they would give 100 percent. This is a little different now with Kentucky and Xavier. But, for me, I just want to play the best opponent possible and I think that Xavier is a really, really good team."