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Friday's Battle of the Bluegrass a 'special game' Kentucky embraces as rival Louisville comes to town

Kentucky players hugged goal-scorer Courtney Raetzman, center, after her corner kick curved through traffic in the 39th minute for the games only score against Washington Friday.
Kentucky players hugged goal-scorer Courtney Raetzman, center, after her corner kick curved through traffic in the 39th minute for the games only score against Washington Friday. UK Athletics

Start with the rivalry game that stirs passions of Kentucky fans who might be only vaguely aware of your sport.

Louisville.

Add that the UK women's soccer team is on a four-game winning streak in the rivalry. No one on the roster has lost this game.

Then heap on a huge marketing promotion dubbing it the "Battle of the Bluegrass." Sell tickets for a dollar (for fans wearing UK blue). Promise "world-class" pyrotechnics during the player introductions. Hand out "Rally Towels" and player trading cards and try to shatter the team's home attendance mark of 1,774 by opening the berm and trying to fill every cranny of UK's Bell Soccer Complex.

Other teams might shy from this kind of build-up for a game this early in the season, but not Coach Jon Lipsitz's Cats.

"We don't hide from the fact that it's a big game," Lipsitz said Thursday. "And I know that there is 'coachspeak' sometimes of 'oh, it's just another game' — It's not just another game.

"We play Louisville once a year. It's a special game. It's a special game for youth players in this state. It's a special game for Big Blue Nation. And we understand the pressure of going first. ... We're the first (UK) team to play Louisville (this school year). And rather than running from that, we embrace the fact that there's pressure there. We enjoy it. We love it."

The Cats have made four straight NCAA Tournament appearances under Lipsitz, including a run to the Sweet 16 last season. Playing "big games" is part of the conditioning process.

"Everybody on that field is going to be exhausted about 10 minutes in," Lipsitz said of Friday night. "We have been waiting to see players get over that hump and get that second wind before we've been taking them out. ... And it's exactly for those moments when it gets difficult. When you're playing in front of thousands of fans that are screaming like crazy and your adrenaline's going — it's exciting, but it's also difficult. And we have to love that."

Kentucky (3-1-0) comes into the game off a couple of impressive shutouts last weekend in a 3-0 win over UNC Greensboro and a 7-0 win over Toledo. But those wins haven't erased the sting of the 2-0 loss to San Diego State on Aug. 23 that knocked the Cats off their No. 16 national ranking.

"We definitely were not focused going into that game," Lipsitz said. "We could feel it. Our warm-up wasn't good. The day before wasn't good. And those things catch up to you ... And that's on me. San Diego State is a tremendous team and they punished us for it.."

In the Toledo game, the Cats polished things up, scoring the most goals in Lipitz's seven seasons.

Lipsitz is 5-1 against Louisville with four straight 2-0 wins. The Cats are 10-2-1 all-time against the Cards.

Louisville (1-1-1), like Kentucky, has a new stadium and practice facilities. Women's World Cup winning coach Jill Ellis called the place "heaven" on a visit there last month. And the Cards are looking to improve on a rough introduction to the ACC last year (7-9-2) which saw them face more ranked teams in-conference (four) than they had seen in the previous two years combined in the American Athletic and Big East. Their conference schedule includes defending national champion Florida State and a who's who of perennial women's soccer powers, including North Carolina and Virginia.

Ending Kentucky's streak would be a good start on the road back.

The Cardinals are bolstered by the return of senior forward Casey Whitfield, who sat out last season with an Achilles injury. She's one of three players leading Louisville with a goal and an assist each in their three games.

Kentucky counters with senior leadership as well with 4-foot-11 midfielder Courtney Raetzman keying the attack. It was Raetzman's corner kick that curled in off the Washington keeper giving the Cats a season-opening victory over the then-No. 20 ranked Huskies on Aug. 21.

Louisville had to face Washington two days later, falling 2-1.

"They were ahead against Washington, and Washington got a couple of good goals late," Lipsitz said. "I thought that our game with Washington was quite even. We just found a moment, and I'm sure it's going to be very similar tomorrow with Louisville."

UK men open twin bill

The No. 16 UK men's soccer team opens for the UK women Friday at 5 p.m. with a game against Wright State.

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