UK's Gilliland carries mother's lesson

It's an incomplete thought to say you don't know Arin Gilliland. You just don't know the University of Kentucky freshman yet.

"She'll go up and talk to anybody; that's one of Arin's main qualities," said Emma Brown, a friend from childhood and Wildcats teammate. "She doesn't feel awkward about anything. If she sees somebody on the street, she wants to talk to them. She's very friendly. She wants to get to know people."

It just took her a little longer when it came to the most important person of all.

Three years ago, Arin's mother, Letita Gilliland, was diagnosed with colon cancer, which spread to her liver and stomach. Instead of battling a stubborn teenage daughter to unsatisfying stalemates, she now battles a Stage IV disease in which even fighting to a standstill is considered a success. She undergoes treatment and still works when she's able because, as Arin puts it, she isn't the type to sit at home, more into doing than delegating.

"We didn't have the best relationship growing up," Arin said. "I'm sure some of my friends could tell you because at home we'd get into yelling arguments -- literally screaming back and forth because I wanted to do something and she said, 'No.' But then I went and asked Dad behind her back and he would say 'Yeah,' and they would get into a fight.

"I kind of gave her a little crap growing up that I probably shouldn't have."

Brown, now Arin's roommate at Kentucky, frequently stayed with the Gilliland family when traveling from her home in Louisville, Ky., to play on the same club team. She would be there when, unwilling to listen to the lecture sure to follow, Gilliland would decline her mother's calls. And she was there in the house when proximity ensured collision.

"I definitely got firsthand experience with the Gilliland family arguments," Brown recalled.

The volume and ferocity notwithstanding, those are the typical travails of teenagers. As Arin put it, "A mother-daughter relationship always sets in at some point." It's just that in the case of the Gillilands, it might have been years away if not for events interceding.

Faced with the prospect of the sort of unhappy ending life too often delivers, mother and daughter are making the most of the present.

"I learned that she's, I don't know, an actual really fun person," Gilliland said. "Me and her, if I was her age and we grew up together, we would probably be best friends because we're literally exactly the same -- which I hate to admit, but we really are."

When he was hired as Kentucky's coach in 2008, Jon Lipsitz didn't know Gilliland well, but he knew of her. Having coached in the Midwest at the college and club levels before a stint as University of Charlotte coach that preceded his arrival at Kentucky, Lipsitz had seen the athleticism and competitiveness that made Gilliland a prep star in Lexington. In fact, when Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart asked during the interview process what it would take to lift the program to championship heights, Lipsitz mentioned Gilliland.

Lipsitz's thinking was simple: If he couldn't convince a homegrown talent like Gilliland to stay put, why would anyone else want to come to Lexington?

Lipsitz got the job, but it wasn't until the recruit came on her official visit that he really got the full Arin Gilliland experience.

"Quite honestly, the best way to describe her is just a silly goofball," Lipsitz said. "She's a kid. I think sometimes we look at these top athletes and we sort of forget they're kids. She was just fun and silly and sarcastic and all these things that work very well with the coaching staff here because it's a good description of us."

In all those traits -- the amiability, inquisitiveness, determination and, frankly, mule-like stubbornness -- there is evidence that Gilliland is her mother's daughter.

After chemotherapy at the University of Kentucky Hospital, Letita Gilliland sometimes stops by Lipsitz's office to chat -- and perhaps share a knowing laugh with the father of teenage sons about whatever piece of equipment Arin lost or whatever form she forgot to fill out in a timely fashion.

"The grace -- and I think that's really the word -- with which Letita has handled all of this really washes down over her family," Lipsitz said. "She's an amazing woman."

But the extent to which time is something fought for rather than relied upon was clear when Arin enrolled at Kentucky a semester early, something she said was done in large part to ensure her mother saw her play in a Kentucky uniform in a spring exhibition game.

It hurts a lot, but you take it day for day. You've got to roll the dice and hope everything works out good. You can't always be down about things. If you're always down then nothing will get better.

--Kentucky freshman Arin Gilliland

They don't put names on the back of the uniforms at Kentucky, but an exception was made that day in the spring. Gilliland presented her mother with a jersey emblazoned with "Gilliland" on the back. Letita also was there when her daughter played her first official home game on Aug. 23, and hopefully will be there for many more to follow. But there are no guarantees.

"It's really scary," Gilliland said not long after seeing Letita for the first time since the most recent round of chemotherapy. "I didn't even recognize her. Her hair, it is way thinner than it's ever been. She was just really frail looking and her voice is really weak. I don't know, it's just moving. And it just sets in, you know?"

For the only time in nearly half an hour on the phone, her voice trailed off at that point, not on a note of finality, as if done with her response, but as if unsure where to go next.

"I don't know," she continued. "It hurts a lot, but you take it day for day. You've got to roll the dice and hope everything works out good. You can't always be down about things. If you're always down then nothing will get better."

As recently as a few years ago, the thought of Gilliland wearing a Kentucky uniform would have come as a surprise to many, her most of all. She grew up dreaming of soccer, school and sun at a place like Stanford. Part of the allure was the track record of soccer success, in contrast to a Kentucky program that has struggled to make headway in the SEC, a conference itself still struggling to gain foothold among the national elite in soccer. Part of it was the weather, also in stark contrast to the suffocating summertime humidity and icy winters of the Midwest. And part of it was the freedom, decidedly in contrast to her supposed adolescent captivity.

Letita steered her daughter toward soccer at a young age, despite little familiarity with the sport. Years later, Gilliland was ready to use it to escape.

A prolific goal-scoring forward in youth soccer, Gilliland appears to have found a home with the national program as an athletic defender capable of getting into the attack (she has already trained with the under-17 national team and spent part of the past summer in camp with the under-20 team). With an eye toward her long-term future, as much as the team's short-term one, Lipsitz plans to play her on the back line this season and allow her to grow into the role, one that could someday take her to a World Cup and the Olympics.

And yet it's understandable why the future is not her focus at the moment.

"I think there is an urgency in her, in her life," Lipsitz said. "Arin wants to live life fast and now. And I think there is an urgency, there is almost a rush to live that you see in Arin and understand where it comes from."

It comes from her mother, as has so much in her life. From the first time Gilliland stepped on a soccer field, unconvinced all the running was worth it but willing to wait it out in exchange for the orange slices at halftime, to the eve of her first real college game, her mom has been there to support her. It just took some time to realize the hand that steadied her wasn't trying to hold her back.

"She's one of those people you can always count on," Gilliland said. "She's always going to be there. She'll always back you up in anything you do. She's just an awesome woman -- she's stubborn, like me, which is a bad quality we both have. We're very, very stubborn, which is why we butt heads sometimes.

"If you don't know her, you really need to get to know her."

Life is more enjoyable when you get to know the good people. Consider it one more lesson from a mother to a daughter.

Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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