Before the season started, Tony Amato gathered the Arizona Wildcats in the locker room for a team meeting.
There was something he had to address.
The Pac-12 preseason poll had just been released and Arizona was picked to finish ninth in the conference.
They finished seventh the year before. Something wasn’t right.
“A lot of times those polls come out and it looks a lot like the year before,” Amato said. “And I think the message that was sent was we finished seventh and got worse in the offseason.
“And I just wanted to remind [our team] that that’s not what we’re doing. We’re not getting worse from last fall till now. We’re getting better each and every time out and it’s important that we keep that in mind.”
Arizona has moved in the standings since last season, but in the opposite direction than projected.
The Wildcats are currently sixth in the Pac-12, with a 2-2-1 conference record (5-4-3 overall) — and that’s including the fact they’ve already played the top four teams in the conference.
Arizona has beaten Oregon and No. 11 Cal, tied No. 1 UCLA, and lost one-goal games to No. 2 Stanford and No. 6 USC.
“I think a lot of people think we’re the underdogs,” said UA forward Charlotte Brascia. “I think this season we kinda came out of nowhere and no one really knew how talented we were going to be. I think we’re showing that now.”
Arizona received six votes in this week’s Coaches Poll, putting them at 32nd in the country. They’re also 26th in RPI. If the season ended today, they’d be in the NCAA Tournament.
But the team’s outlook wasn’t always so rosy.
At one point, Arizona was 1-1-2, coming off a winless weekend in Tempe where they lost to then-No. 24 UCF and tied Boston University.
They then fell at home to Florida Gulf Coast in their next game.
Amato was concerned, because he knew how difficult the beginning of Arizona’s Pac-12 schedule was.
“If you had said after that Tempe weekend come now, we’re going to be 26th in RPI and be able to write our own story in the last six games, I would have taken it because that weekend we didn’t play very well and I thought this could go not well quickly,” he said.
“And then we lost to Florida Gulf Coast the next week and it felt like we gotta manage this right. We gotta lead this right or it could go bad and the girls responded and we’re now in a position where you gotta win games down the stretch anyway.”
There are six conference games left on Arizona’s schedule, only one of which is against a team higher than them in the standings — a home match against the Washington Huskies.
Arizona’s toughest stretch of the season is behind them, and while there aren’t any easy games in the Pac-12, the Wildcats at least have their fate in their own hands.
“We’ve put ourself in a situation where if we win games down the stretch, we’re in,” Amato said.
Coffee makes them closer
Why has Arizona been so successful this season? A lot of players have mentioned the camaraderie of the team.
A smaller roster has helped with that — the Wildcats now have 26 players instead of 32 — but so has an exercise known as “strength-finding.”
Every couple weeks, assistant coach Kate Norton pairs teammates for coffee dates.
The pairings are chosen carefully, making sure two players who are roommates or close friends aren’t put together.
“It’s maybe someone you don’t talk to as much or we wouldn’t be partners with usually,” said UA defender Leah Carillo.
The conversation topics range from soccer to school to family to ... well, just about anything.
“It’s just about getting to know them,” Carillo said.
Amato said it helps players “see the strengths” in their teammates.
“Sometimes when you don’t know someone, you only see the weaknesses or the negatives in that person,” he said. “When you take some time off the field to build, even if it’s a 10-minute grab a coffee (scenario), you can ask some questions, just learn about some backgrounds, just start to understand their perspective a little bit. I think you can foster more of a ‘seeing the strengths’ in someone (environment).”
The coffee dates are an exercise that Norton suggested when she was hired away from the Seattle Sounders this offseason, and it’s one that figures to become a permanent fixture for Arizona soccer.
“I really like it,” Brascia said. “It’s made us a lot closer. We’re a lot more comfortable with each other now.”
Strength in (smaller) numbers
Even though Arizona has a smaller roster this season, there’s more depth.
“It’s more like quality instead of quantity right now,” Carillo explained.
Against UCLA last Sunday, Arizona used eight players in addition to their starting 11.
The two players who scored in the match — freshmen Hannah Clifford and Amanda Porter — both came off the bench.
Meanwhile, Carillo entered as a fifth defender to help solidify the back line.
“We can put anyone in and be effective,” Clifford said.
That wasn’t always true. Amato thinks the gap between the starters and reserves isn’t as drastic as it was last year.
“Last year, we got caught in a situation where some of the ones that weren’t playing, the gap just kept growing,” he said. “It feels like if some people haven’t played this year, they’ve continued to close the gap because they’re good enough to keep getting better.”
And with only 26 players on the roster, there are fewer players who don’t play regularly.
“Ultimately if there’s a lot of people not playing, they can fall in that dark cloud of ‘why am I doing this?’ or this is the coach’s fault and some of that stuff,” Amato said. “And we definitely have less of that with less numbers.”
“She could easily score six goals in the next six games”
The Wildcats have played well in their last seven games, despite not getting much production from senior midfielder Gabi Stoian.
Stoian missed two games with a quad injury, which she suffered on Sept. 10 vs. Texas Tech, and has been easing her way back onto the pitch since returning Sept. 28 at Stanford.
In the meantime, the senior has only tallied four shots in four games since her return, none of which have been on-goal.
Amato believes Stoian is just rusty.
“Anytime you’re injured and out, it’s very hard to just get plugged back in,” he explained. “Everyone else keeps getting better and fitter and sharper and getting game time. I think she’s just been rusty since she came back, but she had a good session [Wednesday] and my expectation is on Friday (at Oregon State), the rust is knocked off and she’ll have a good game.”
Stoian has scored twice this season, and is six goals and five assists away from breaking the school’s all-time records.
Only six games remain for her to do that, though. Unless, of course, Arizona makes the NCAA Tournament.
“The injury was a setback. That stuff happens and I don’t think it’s gone according to plan for her,” Amato said.
“But honestly, she could easily score six goals in the next six games. She’s that good. I think she needs to get focused on that and if she does, we’re in the postseason and she’s got more games to score goals. If she’s doing that, the team will be in a good place.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire