Kentucky mens soccer claims Sun Belt Championship, earns No. 1 overall seed


Isabel McSwain

The Wildcats pose with their trophy after the No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 7 James Madison soccer match in the championship round of the Sun Belt Tournament on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022, at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 2-0. Photo by Isabel McSwain | Staff

Cole Parke, Sports Editor

No. 1 Kentucky mens soccer (14-0-5) defeated James Madison 2-0 on Sunday, claiming the Sun Belt Conference championship in its first season with the conference. 

The win saw the Wildcats win their second consecutive conference championship, also winning the Conference USA championship last season in what was currently the conference’s final season.

The Cats will also, by nature of beating their Sun Belt adversaries by a combined score of 7-1, enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated for the first time in program history.

“I’m very happy,” Kentucky captain Robert Screen. “I don’t think coming in we knew we’d do quite as well as we did. We’re happy to be where we are undefeated all the way through the regular season and tournament play. I think it’s a testament to the work we put in and some of the coaching that we’ve been given.”

With the NCAA Tournament Bracket Reveal Show awarding Kentucky the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament just one day later, the Wildcats will host all of their tournament matches until the College Cup (final four), which is to be held in Cary, North Carolina.

“(The attendance today was) 2,389,” head coach Johan Cedergren said. “That is an unbelievable number in the conditions it was today. I’m very thankful and very proud of the inclination of coming out for all three conference games. It’s a tough place to play for the other teams because we love playing here. The fans love making it a tough atmosphere and they’re very loud and very supportive.”

With the Sun Belt regular season and Sun Belt Tournament trophies already secured by the Cats, UK turns its sights towards the final light at the end of the tunnel: the national championship trophy.

“I’ve been saying to the guys all season that we have to reset after such victories like today,” Luis Grassow said “Because there are three titles to win for a reason. It’s not like you win one and then you don’t have to worry about the others. I feel like it’s really important now to enjoy the night, enjoy the day or whatever and then reset and focus completely on the next game.”

The Wildcats are set to earn a first-round bye by nature of being seeded in the top 16, though the matchup in the Round of 32 may be more difficult than casual viewers may expect, with Kentucky being forced to play the match without its leading scorer, Norwegian striker Eythor Bjorgolfsson.

Bjorgolfsson is suspended for Kentucky’s next matchup, earning a red card against James Madison for seeming to kick his leg at a member of the Dukes team who was pulling him to the ground.

“It’s incredibly frustrating because that was not a red card,” Cedergren said. “The other guy fouled Eythor I think four times and then threw him over and as Eythor is trying to figure out what is up and what is down somehow there’s a red card because he kicked out. But no one is perfect, (I am) for sure included, so I’m just sad and frustrated for Eythor because I know how bad he wants to play every single game.”

Cedergren seemed optimistic with the team’s chances regardless, citing Ben Damge as a more-than-capable fill-in player for the Round of 32.

The Wildcats are no stranger to Round of 32 matchups with all of UK’s starters against JMU, minus goalkeeper Casper Mols and freshman Max Miller, being returners from last season. 

The 2021 team defeated Santa Clara 2-0 at the Bell in the second round before going on to be defeated by eventual national champions Clemson on the road in the Sweet 16.

With Kentucky earning the right to host until the final four, home field advantage, which Clemson was able to utilize one year ago, will favor the Cats.

Looking around the bracket Kentucky has faced off against five NCAA Tournament teams, three of which were also ranked amongst the top 16.

The Wildcats defeated No. 9 Lipscomb 3-2, No. 13 Indiana 3-0 in Bloomington and drew No. 16 Tulsa 1-1 in Oklahoma. The Cats also defeated Louisville, who will host Western Michigan for the right to face Lipscomb, 3-2 and drew Marshall, who will face off against Elon for the right to face No. 4 Virginia, 1-1.

Kentucky’s first opponent will be the winner of South Florida and Hofstra, with that first-round match being set to take place on Thursday, Nov. 17, while Kentucky’s matchup against the winner will take place on Sunday, Nov. 20.