When considering the usual strength of Pac-12 soccer, starting off against Utah instead of a team like UCLA or Stanford looks like a way to ease into conference play. Historically, that’s been the case for Arizona, which has an 11-8-1 all-time record against the Utes. The problem of late has been winning in Salt Lake City.
“The altitude is different,” said Arizona goalkeeper Hope Hisey. “They actually bring a good crowd out there, and their fans are committed and they’re kind of ruthless, too. And they always get up to play at home, especially because I think my sophomore year we played them on their senior night or senior day. And then now we’re going to play them on their alumni day and their Pac-12 opener. So kind of just the circumstances surrounding the match in which we play them is always big for them. So kind of just knowing that and trying to feed off that energy and kind of insert it into ourselves.”
The Wildcats are 1-1-1 against the Utes over Hisey’s career. The win came last year in Tucson, one of just two conference wins for Arizona. The loss and draw were the two years before that, both of which were played at Utah.
Arizona head coach Becca Moros admits that the altitude can be an issue. She played in Utah as a member of the now-defunct Utah Royals FC during her last two years in the NWSL. There are things that can be done to minimize the effects, though.
“I played in Salt Lake City,” Moros said. “It has a big impact, and the longer you are there the worse it is. If you were to go there and spend three or four days there before playing, it would be worse for you. The goal is to get in at the last possible minute and get out as quickly as possible unless you live there and can adapt to it, and then it’s legal blood doping. But it is definitely an advantage for them.”
The Wildcats are hoping to get off to a winning start in Pac-12 play before they return home to face Stanford and California next week. Conference play feels like a whole new season.
“I think there’s an excitement about the Pac-12 starting,” Moros said. “I think it’s anticipated. It’s competitive every single time and I think they feed off of that. And they love the conference they play in and the competitive nature of all the teams in it. So I do think there’s something different about it. I mean, we try to keep our preparation, our focus, and all those things the same in every competition no matter who the opponent is, but there’s something special about the Pac-12. And I know they feel that.”
There are individual aspects of the game to anticipate, as well. The match in Salt Lake City marks the opportunity for Hisey to take another step up the ladder in Arizona’s record book. The senior is currently one save away from tying Shannon Monti (1998-2001) at No. 5 for career saves. In last week’s 1-0 win over UC Davis, she tied Gabby Kaufman (2012-1014) for third in career solo shutouts with 16. They are just two of several categories where Hisey stands among the top 10 in program history.
Most players say they don’t care about individual records when asked. Hisey has a slightly different take. As a Tucson native and daughter of two UA alumni—her dad Jason played baseball for the Wildcats and her mom Faith donned the Wilma the Wildcat costume on the cheerleading squad—her feelings about Arizona inform her feelings about being in the Wildcats’ record book. She just has to decide when the time is right to reflect on those accomplishments.
“If I look at that stuff, it’s usually after the season just because I don’t want to get too caught up in numbers and things like that when I have a job to do here and people that rely on me to have my head fully in it,” Hisey said. “But being a fan of this program since I was a little kid and then being able to kind of etch my name in that way, it always is something that I like to take pride in. But it is something that I’ll be able to enjoy once the season is finished and we get the job done.”
The Wildcats won just two matches in Pac-12 play last year as they adapted to a new system and a new coach. One player after another says that she feels more comfortable in that system this season. Just mastering the system is a win in and of itself.
“Especially coming from Tony (Amato’s system) my freshman year, Tony style to Becca style,” said junior midfielder Megan Chelf earlier this month. “Tony was successful with what he did, but it didn’t feel as rewarding when we’d win. And no shame to him because it worked with what he did. With Becca, the way that we’re playing right now feels like even our losses feel like wins because each day we’re getting better and we’re playing prettier soccer.”
Will that feeling of comfort and fulfillment lead to a better conference record? The answer to that will begin to unfold in Salt Lake City.
Arizona Wildcats (3-2-2) @ Utah Utes (4-2-2)
When and where: The match starts at 6 p.m. MST on Friday, Sept. 23. It will be held at Ute Field in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Streaming: The match will be streamed on Utah Live Stream 2.
Stats: In-game stats will be available at Arizona Live Stats.
Rankings: Neither team is ranked by the United Soccer Coaches. The Utes are No. 55 in the RPI while Arizona is No. 63.