The Kentucky women’s soccer team has a new look this season, starting as many as five freshmen over its opening two games, as the Cats look to regain the form that made them a perennial NCAA Tournament team.
Last season saw the Cats attain a No. 9 ranking by the end of September, but they couldn’t sustain the momentum, going winless in the last eight games and missing the NCAAs for the first time in four years. Coach Jon Lipsitz described last year’s disappointing 9-7-4 campaign as a difficult time.
“We did a lot of work on our team chemistry in the offseason,” said Lipsitz, who is entering his eighth year as head coach. “I examined a lot of what I needed to do better, because in the end, we didn’t do well because I didn’t do well enough.”
Part of the makeover includes a wardrobe change for the coach. Lipsitz has been known for donning a suit and tie as his game-day attire in any weather condition. He and his assistants have adopted a more unified look in UK apparel this season.
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“Obviously, I’ve worn a suit for a long time on the sideline and one of the things that I really felt is that I need this program to not be about me,” he said. “I understand that I have a role as the leader of this program. And I’ve got to steer the ship, but more and more, I need them to understand that they’re in charge of the ship and they need to take ownership.”
Kentucky opened the season with a 1-1 tie against defending Big West Champ Long Beach State and a 3-0 loss to No. 20 Pepperdine.
Senior Zoe Swift, who has played most of her career as a forward, was pressed into action as a defender in those games after preseason injuries to expected center back contributors Payton Atkins and Jordan Holt.
“We worked hard but we’re not organized yet,” Swift said of their troubles during the opening road swing. “The thing that we have to get is our tactics together. It’s not so much our work ethic, but our tactics are what need to change.”
Senior captain and center back Alex Carter agreed.
“I think we just need to be a lot more attacking-minded than we were last year,” she said. “I think that was part of our problem. We’ve been in the past a really good defensive team, but it’s almost like we did not even focus on putting the goals in and being just tough in the attacking third. I think we’re going to bring that grit this year.”
The schedule doesn’t get any easier as Kentucky entertains No. 23 South Florida on Thursday and No. 25 Northwestern on Sunday. It’s a brutal schedule aimed at getting the young Cats prepared for the rigors of SEC play.
“If you want to get prepared for the SEC, you’ve got to play the best,” Lipsitz said. “I just feel like people come here to find out how great they can be and to find out how great this team can be.”
With a recruiting class ranked No. 8 in the nation coming in, the coaching staff expected many of the freshmen to compete for significant playing time this season. Defender Danielle Hayden, midfielder Marissa Bosco, and forwards Gina Crosetti and Lamaya Williams have all earned starts, so far.
Kentucky lost eight seniors off last year’s squad, including All-SEC midfielder Courtney Raetzman, who was drafted by the Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL and is playing with fellow Kentucky alumna Arin Gilliland.
Perhaps the anchor of the freshman class is starting goalkeeper Evangeline Soucie, who enrolled in the spring out of Delaware Valley High School in Milford, N.J. The early enrollment let her adjust to the pace of play at the college level and acclimate to the team culture, she said.
“On the college stage, there’s more people and it’s televised and streamed, so it’s a lot of pressure,” Soucie said. “But we come out here every day. We work hard. And no matter what happens, my teammates have my back, and I have their back, so all of that comes together during the game and helps relieve some of that pressure.”
Soucie is the third consecutive starting freshman keeper for the Cats, an odd circumstance brought on by players who’ve transferred out to play for colleges closer to home (Taylor Braun, Texas and Katelyn Jensen, Maryland).
“I think we knew years ago, when E (Soucie) committed here that she was going to be in a battle right away for that job, and, at this point, she’s won it,” Lipsitz said. “She’s done a fantastic job. Really can’t fault her on any goals we’ve given up. … I think she’ll be one of the best in the country soon.”
Lipsitz knows he’s asking a lot of a young team.
“My feeling is that if we get better every day, we’re going to end up in the postseason,” he said. “And that’s where I want to be. We want to be playing in the postseason. We know it’s going to be difficult. … My goal is that we continue to get better, and we learn how to win.”
Thursday: No. 23 South Florida at UK, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday: No. 25 Northwestern at UK, 1 p.m.
Live video broadcasts: SEC Network Plus (online only)