With it being Senior Night, something rare blazing before Kentucky eyes was certain Thursday night. Arin Gilliland played her last home soccer game for the University of Kentucky.
Coach Jon Lipsitz put it plainly. "She's the best player who's ever played at the University of Kentucky," he said of Gilliland. "There's absolutely no doubt about that. Five years from now, she'll be in the Hall of Fame here."
But another rarity marked the chilly evening. Sophomore Kaitlin Miller's first career goal gave UK 2-1 victory over Alabama.
Ideally, Gilliland would have scored the game-winner. She had to settle for forcing a corner kick, which Miller directed into the net to break the tie with less than five minutes remaining.
"We had 11 corners," Lipsitz said. "So the key to the game was these players getting 11 corners. If we get 10, if we get nine, we don't win the game. That constant aggressiveness to get to the end line is what led to the corner kick goal."
Ten minutes into the game, Jade Klump's team-leading eighth goal of the season put Kentucky ahead 1-0. Alabama tied it two minutes later with a goal. It was the first goal given up by Kentucky in 462 minutes.
"We weren't very good," Lipsitz said. "Both teams gave up the ball way too much. It wasn't an esthetically pleasing game. But sometimes you've got to find a way to grind it out."
A homegrown star, Gilliland had put more shots on goal (268) in her career than any player in UK history. She had scored 28 goals, which ranks fourth in program history. Yet Lipsitz moved such a prolific scorer to defense earlier this season. UK hasn't lost since.
"She can both shut down the best player of the other team, but also attack," Lipsitz said. "It's a rare player who can do both."
Rarer still is what Lipsitz called Gilliland's "incredible stubborn competitiveness." Apparently, there's no off switch on her competitive spirit.
"She's going to win or she's going to lie about what the rules are to make sure you don't win," the UK coach said in an approving tone of voice. "I've coached thousands of players, and I'd say I've met 10 or 15 who've had that highest level of competititiveness."
Of course, if a coach could instill that kind of competitiveness, many more players would have it. Gilliland said heredity was a factor.
"It's everything I am to the core," she said. "My dad brought me up like that. My family is so competitive. I hate losing, and that's what drives me."
Her father, Bruce, was a state champion wrestler for Fern Creek High School. "He will literally do anything, cheat, whatever he has to do, to win," Arin said. Her mother, Letita, who passed away in 2012, wanted to be the best organizer and ensure that her children were the most prepared.
Of her younger brother Saylor, Gilliland said, "He already wants to race me. He's 13 years old."
As a high school player for West Jessamine (and the Ohio Elite club), Gilliland held the recruiting interest of college soccer powers. Kentucky, not being one, was not under consideration.
"I just had the mentality of a 16-year-old," she said. "Let's go to the West Coast. Stanford and UCLA."
Then doctors diagnosed her mother with colon cancer. Priorities changed.
"I wanted nothing more than my mom being able to watch me play," she said.
Coincidentally, UK had hired Lipsitz, who showed off his knowledge of youth soccer during the job interview by telling Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart how important recruiting Gilliland was. If UK could not successfully recruit a player in its own area, UK would not escape college soccer's backwater.
"He knew right away to tell me he'd take care of my mom," Gilliland said. "He'd make sure she was at every game. He made it feel like a family atmosphere, and that's exactly what I needed. I needed someone to take me in. I needed girls around me that wouldn't just be my teammates, but would also be my family. He sold it perfectly."
In Gilliland's four seasons, Kentucky has moved up in the soccer world. By beating Alabama, UK clinched a No. 3 seed in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. She spoke hopefully of what UK can do this post-season.
"They're going to give everything they have," she said of her teammates, "and prove to this program that we're ready to set the tone for what we have the potential to be."