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UK women’s soccer drops SEC opener, but youth movement paying off early for Cats

After a disappointing campaign in 2018, the University of Kentucky women’s soccer team is off to its best start in four years.

But on Thursday night the Wildcats hit a bit of a bump, falling to visiting Auburn 2-1 in double overtime at the Bell Complex in the opening game of the Southeastern Conference schedule for both teams.

With an overhauled roster that features 14 freshmen, the Wildcats have already won as many matches as they did all last season, when they went 5-14 and lost 10 straight before beating Georgia 2-1 in the season finale for their only conference victory of the year.

On Thursday, a pair of freshmen got Kentucky on the board early. After a corner kick, Hannah Richardson took a short pass from Hunter Koziara off her chest then booted the ball into the right side of the net to give the Wildcats a 1-0 lead in the fourth minute.

UK’s defense held firm through most of the match, but the Tigers got the equalizer in the 80th minute when Jessie Gerow knifed into the box and slipped a header past UK goalie Steph Stull. Auburn’s Hailey Whitaker connected on the game-winning goal off an assist by Gerow in the fifth minute of the second overtime session.

At 5-2-2, Kentucky has its best record through nine games under third-year head coach Ian Carry. It’s also the best mark through nine games for the Wildcats since 2015, when they began the year 7-1-1 and finished with a record of 10-7-3, falling to LSU in the first round of the SEC Tournament.

Asked how such a young roster has come together so early to put the Cats in position to make a run at their most successful season in years, Carry said, “It all comes down to purposeful recruiting. Bringing in a group of young women that we knew could, from the get-go as freshmen, be very impactful on the field. They’ve been impactful pre-conference and they will be in the SEC.

“It’s taken two years to move it in the direction that we want it to go. You could see it tonight, we end up with nine freshmen on the field battling with a team that every single year goes deep in the NCAA Tournament.”

Carry said that once his young Cats develop a killer instinct they’ll be a formidable matchup for any conference foe. UK had several chances to bury Auburn in the first half but came up short on multiple scoring opportunities.

“At halftime everyone was so disappointed in the locker room. The game should have been over. We should have been up 3-0 at halftime,” said Carry. “That’s something we spoke about. In the SEC you’re going to get very few chances but when you do you’ve got to take them … You’re going to get punished in the SEC if you make mistakes.”

Richardson’s UK career has gotten off to a red-hot start. The Bartlett, Ill., native, who has played with the U-20 United States Women’s National Team, leads the Wildcats with six goals. Her fellow freshman forward, Jordyn Rhodes, ranks second with four goals.

Carry called Richardson “a very special young woman who’s still learning the game.”

“She wants to do everything on the field,” Carry said. “She’s fantastic. Sometimes she utilizes too much energy in spaces. But it’s one of those things: She can do nothing for 89 minutes then you leave her alone for a split second and the ball’s in the back of the net.”

Richardson said she expects the Wildcats to quickly recover from the setback against Auburn.

“I know that even though this is disappointing and kind of sucks for us we’ll bounce back and be super motivated. Our team is so excited for this season.”

UK was picked to finish last in the conference in the SEC preseason coaches poll. Richardson said that doesn’t sit well with the Wildcats.

“Seeing the SEC polls and us being placed at the bottom, we really want to prove something this year and just get after it … I love this team and I think everyone is bought-in and wants it. Seeing how disappointed everyone was tonight is a really good thing for the culture at Kentucky. We have the winning mentality and everyone wants to do well.”

Kentucky will complete its non-conference schedule Sunday when it hosts Central Michigan. The Wildcats return to SEC play at Texas A&M at 7 p.m. Sept. 26.

Next match

Central Michigan at Kentucky

2 p.m. Sunday

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Josh Sullivan has worked at the Herald-Leader for more than 10 years in multiple capacities, including as a news assistant, page designer, copy editor and sports reporter. He is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Lexington native.