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Arizona soccer set to battle Utah and Colorado in the altitude

The Wildcats are out for revenge in the Rocky Mountains

Photo courtesy Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics

What makes the Pac-12 the most challenging conference in college soccer?

It’s not just the talent, but also the different climates its teams have to play in.

This weekend, the Arizona Wildcats will leave scorching Southern Arizona for the Rocky Mountains to face the Utah Utes and Colorado Buffaloes in what’s considered the toughest road trip in the conference.

It’s the only trek that requires travel to two states, and while the weather itself can vary (Arizona will luckily avoid snow this time around), the altitude, which can leave those unaccustomed gasping for air, is always a factor.

“You feel that difference,” said UA midfielder Gabi Stoian. “It’s a little harder to breathe, a little harder to run, but we’ve played in all different types of weather, so I don’t think that will affect us. We just need to play our game and stay focused on what we’re doing.”

Staying focused might be difficult, though, particularly in Boulder, Colo. where Arizona will be reminded of the mile-high altitude at every turn.

“When you get off the plane, there’s signs that say ‘elevation,” head coach Tony Amato said.

“When you get on their campus there’s [signs] everywhere. They post it real big on their stadium. ... In the locker room it will be like ‘exercise at elevation is dangerous to your health.’ The guy who meets you on the bus says ‘welcome to 6,000 feet.’ They go over the top with it.”

Which is probably by design.

“I don’t know if they put it there to mess with you,” Stoian said, “but I don’t think that will affect us.”

It didn’t the last time the ‘Cats played in Boulder. In 2015, Arizona trailed 2-0 at Colorado before coming back to force a 3-3 draw in double overtime.

“And we should’ve won the game 4-3,” Amato said. “We had a goal called back that shouldn’t have been called back in extra time.

“But if you need any mental hurdle to jump over, that’s proof right there. Down two goals in the elevation, we played 110 minutes, and we played (two days earlier) that week … so I look at that and go ‘we’ll be fine.”

Last year, Arizona was swept by Utah and Colorado in Tucson, and both losses were one-goal heartbreakers.

“I think it’ll be similar,” Amato said of this year’s rematches. “It’ll be a one-goal game either way.”

Arizona faces Utah on Thursday

First up for Arizona is a Thursday match vs. Utah at 6 p.m. MST in Salt Lake City.

Utah was ranked to start the season, but is currently 5-7-2 overall and a dismal 0-5-1 in the Pac-12.

That conference record is a bit deceiving, though, since Utah has already played the four vaunted California schools, who are all ranked inside the top-16, and had what Amato called a “bad weekend” on the road against the Washington schools.

“They just had a tough stretch,” Amato said. “Everyone has a bad weekend in the season and that was their bad weekend.”

While last in the Pac-12 this season, Utah returns nearly their entire team that placed fifth and reached the Sweet 16 last year.

Utah is fourth in the conference in goals per game, but has allowed 19 goals this season, nearly double what Arizona has surrendered.

Forward Hailey Skolmoski leads Utah’s potent attack, tallying seven goals this season.

The Wildcats are awfully familiar with her. The junior headed in the game-winner against Arizona last season.

That hasn’t been forgotten.

"They beat us at home last year,” Amato said, “so we have to return the favor this year.”

Arizona is “in a good place”

Like Utah, Arizona has already faced the four California schools. But they fared far better, beating No. 11 Cal and tying No. 1 UCLA.

The Wildcats followed that up with a 2-0 win against Oregon State in Corvallis last weekend.

Amato was worried that his team would take a “deep breath” playing against an unranked team for the first time in five games, but that didn’t happen.

“If you relax in the Pac-12, you lose. And our team did not do that,” he said. “We scored two goals in 20 minutes, played really well, probably could have scored one or two more with the chances we created, so it was a really good performance, really.”

Arizona is 6-4-3 overall and 3-2-1 in the Pac-12, good for fifth in the conference standings. They are also 21st in RPI — well on their way to an NCAA Tournament bid.

“We’re in a good place. We feel like we hold our fate in our own hands now,” Amato said. “At this point, if you’re 20-ish or 30 below in the RPI, you feel good about where you’re at.

“But there’s still five games to go. If we lose all five, it doesn’t matter what we were today in RPI.”

The good news is Arizona’s final five games are against teams below them in the conference standings.

“We obviously performed well against the four California schools that we had back-to-back so from now it’s just about getting the wins that we know we can,” Stoian said.

Stoian scores

Stoian scored her first goal in over a month vs. Oregon State.

The senior midfielder missed two games with a quad injury in September, and is just now back up to full speed.

“It definitely felt good to get that goal, even more so to get that win and put us where we are now,” she said.

Not only did Stoian score in Corvallis, she led Arizona with six shots.

“It just felt like she was knocking the rust off,” Amato said. “… It just felt like she was going to be herself that weekend and she was. That bodes well for us this weekend because she did a lot of good things in that game.”

Stoian is now five goals away from breaking the school’s all-time record, but there’s only five regular season games left in her career.

“I hate when people tell me that,” she said. “It’s gone by so quickly and hopefully we make a run in the tournament this year and it’s more than five games.”

If Stoian isn’t able to break any records, she at least wants to do something that no other Arizona senior class has done before: make the NCAA Tournament three times.

“That’s most important right now,” she said.

A secret life?

Jill Aguilera made her first career start against Oregon State, tallying four shots, tying a career-high.

The redshirt freshman missed all of last season with a torn ACL, and is now quickly becoming the player Amato envisioned her being.

“This really feels like her freshman year coming off an injury, so she’s been getting better and better and she was so dangerous on Friday,” Amato said.

Aguilera scored in Arizona’s season-opening win at Oklahoma back in August, but hasn’t found the back on the net since, despite being an active member of Arizona’s attack.

The forward has nine shots on-goal this season, tied for second-most on the team.

“She is so fast, so strong and just puts everything out there,” Stoian said. “She works so hard and a goal is coming for her, but she’s created so many chances and whether she scores or not, it leads to other people scoring. It’s definitely a matter of time before she gets one, too.”

Aguilera was unable to put home a point blank shot against Oregon State on Friday, which rebounded to Stoian who did score on the play.

The week before, Aguilera couldn’t capitalize on a breakaway that would’ve resulted in the game-winning goal vs. UCLA.

“I asked some players if Jill is living some secret life we need to know about where the karma is going against her,” Amato joked.

“She’s getting in really good spots and the ball just hasn’t gone in the back of the net yet. I think she is bound to score some goals.”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire