Getting to stay at home for this weekend's opening rounds of the NCAA tournament is a luxury for the most of Tennessee's seventh-ranked soccer team.
For Lady Vol senior forward Rhian Wilkinson, though, the chance to host means much more - it means a chance to play at home for the first time in the 2003 soccer season.
Wilkinson, who spent nearly all of the first two months of UT's season playing for the Canadian National Team in World Cup competition, was forced to miss the Oct. 12 senior day festivities.
At that point, Wilkinson was in California being honored with the Canadian team as one of the final four teams in World Cup play.
To Wilkinson, tonight's 8 p.m. contest against Oklahoma represents another shot at having a senior day of her own.
"I was quite upset about the fact that I missed my senior night and would not be able to play in front of our home crowd one last time," Wilkinson said. "So I am very excited about us hosting the NCAAs.
"The UT fans are the best and there is nothing like playing at home."
But despite missing a large portion of her senior campaign, Wilkinson said her experience playing with the Canadian team was well worth the time spent away
"You never want to miss any part of your season, so missing so much was a huge blow," Wilkinson said. "Playing for my country and in the World Cup was a dream come true, though, and I would not have missed that opportunity for the world."
Her teammates have been on both sides of Wilkinson's return to Tennessee - aiding in her return to the field and gaining an invaluable resource from her experience.
"My team has been great," Wilkinson said. "They have helped me make this shortened season one of the best of my career. I think that my speed of thought and play have gotten much faster.
"Everything is a step or two quicker at the international level, so I think I have brought that speed back with me. And playing for Canada has also helped me with my confidence on the field."
Wilkinson, who in her four years has been a large part of Tennessee's rise toward the nation's upper echelon, said this year's team is a combination of previous teams' mentalities and a new level of talent.
"This team has a great deal of talent and has the capability to do some really amazing things," Wilkinson said. "I think a lot of people underestimate our team, which is great for us, as we love to surprise people. Compared to other UT teams, this one has a lot of talent and youth and everyone is fit and never gives up.
"Past years' teams have always played with a great deal of heart and they have passed that down to us. We pride ourselves on always giving 100 percent effort and heart in every game we play in."
The effort was needed during Sunday's overtime thriller against Florida in the SEC tournament final. In a penalty-kick shootout that went through regulation, two overtime periods and a penalty-kick round without a resolution, the Lady Vols remained confident and came away with another tournament title.
As a captain, Wilkinson thinks that having three titles behind them only makes Tennessee more dangerous on the road ahead.
"Winning everything this season was amazing and gave all of us a great deal of confidence in ourselves," Wilkinson said. "Soccer players have to be confident in themselves in order to be successful, so winning so much hardware can only improve our mentality."
Published: Fri Nov 14, 2003 | Modified: Sat Aug 06, 2005 05:36 p.m.