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Arizona soccer beats Washington State on Senior Day, moves into 4th place in the Pac-12

On a day devoted to Arizona's senior class, it lived up to its billing as one of the best in school history

Photo via @ArizonaSoccer on Twitter

On a day devoted to Arizona's senior class, it lived up to its billing as one of the best in school history.

UA senior Gabi Stoian scored on an assist from fellow senior Charlotte Brascia, and Arizona beat Washington State 1-0 on Sunday afternoon in Tucson.

“It was definitely good to get the win and goal in front of my family, in front of everyone here on Senior Day," Stoian said. "It was a big win for us. It was a good game to win and it puts us one step closer to the tournament."

With the win, the Wildcats capped off a sweep of the Washington schools to improve to 9-4-4 on the season and 6-2-2 in the Pac-12.

UA's senior class is a virtual lock to become the first in school history to reach the NCAA Tournament three times.

“It’s always important to recognize the seniors and I thought this weekend was a lot about them, but most importantly we got the two wins," head coach Tony Amato said. "Our seniors contributed greatly in the win Thursday and you saw that again today, so we’re super happy for them.”

The five seniors were commemorated before the match, but when the first whistle blew, it was all business.

Just seven minutes in, Brascia dished to Stoian who bent a shot inside the far post from 18 yards out for the match's lone goal.

“I got a good pass from Char, turned and saw that opening,” said Stoian, who is now just four goals shy of breaking the school's all-time record.

“It’s definitely good to get that goal and get one step closer (to the record), but as long as we get to the tournament I’m sure there will be more chances.”

It was Stoian's fourth goal of the season, but just her first in front of the home crowd.

"I didn't even think about that. It’s been a rough season compared to the rest, but that’s all right," she joked. "We needed it today."

Arizona outshot WSU 15-8 and turned in their seventh shutout of the season. Lainey Burdett made three saves, including a leaping save in the 18th minute to punch a threatening shot over the crossbar.

WSU had two other shots ring off the post, but the Wildcats' backline limited the Cougars to just three shots on frame.

Amato added a fifth defender in the second half as the usual-four were noticeably wearing down in the 90-degree heat.

“Our backs were gassed, so we needed to put another back back there so they didn’t have as much ground to cover," Amato said.

The Wildcats used 21 different players in the match, another display of their improved depth.

"You gotta have a full squad. The seniors take ownership in the whole team, but I thought the younger players have stepped up all year long and that's also a credit to our older players who've led them along the way," Amato said. "I think we're excited about where we're at now and the future. It's a good place to be."

Indeed.

Arizona is 4-0-1 in their last five games and now sits alone in fourth place in the Pac-12, overtaking Cal which lost to UCLA on Sunday.

A fourth-place finish would be the Wildcats' best finish in the Pac-12 era — though they did tie for fourth in 2015-16 — and UA can finish third if they beat ASU next week and USC beats/ties UCLA.

"There is a perception out there that the four California schools will always be 1-2-3-4 or at least that they have the lead on that," Amato said.

“So I think anytime you break into that, it’s going to be a good season. We were picked ninth in the league, so we’re trying to finish strong here and finish in that top (four).”

Arizona has come a long way from the Sun Devil Desert Classic — a two-game stint in September in which UA lost to UCF in heartbreaking fashion before drawing with an inferior Boston University team to fall to 1-1-2 through four games.

“It’s interesting because I’ve felt like sometimes we’ve played really well early on and then you feel like you’re running out of gas as the season ends and then you have to lift them back up," Amato said.

“This feels like we’re getting better as the season goes on. We know what we are, players know their roles, we’re playing well and it feels good to be peaking at the right time."

The early-season struggles, Amato said, are the reason for that.

"Credit to the girls," he said. "They stuck to the (motto) that everyday we gotta get better. A lot of it fell on me on why we didn’t play well early. We just didn’t know really who we were and what we were good at. And if I don’t know then the girls aren’t going to know.

"Our season is so short that you almost feel like, in that first stretch, if you don’t get it right, your season can be over but you have to win enough games until you figure it out. We figured it out and the girls have played a lot better since then.”

Arizona had the 24th RPI entering the weekend, putting them on track to not only reach the NCAA Tournament, but host a first-round match for just the second time in school history.

“I think it was a rocky start, but after the outcomes we’ve had, we’ve really turned it around," Brascia said. "I had a lot more confidence in our team than I ever had before.”

Despite holding their senior festivities Sunday, Arizona closes out their regular season with a home match against ASU (5-10-3, 2-6-2 Pac-12) next Thursday.

Having senior weekend during the Washington series made more sense, Amato said.

"This allows it to almost be like a family weekend," he said. "They can see two games, we did a dinner on Friday, they can go to football. ... Otherwise, they would have to take off during the week, see a game on a Thursday night and feel crammed and shortened."

Besides, the last time Arizona held Senior Day before a match against ASU, they were routed 5-1 by the visiting Sun Devils.

“The energy will be high anyway on Thursday against ASU," Amato said. "And if you factor that part in and the emotion, I tried that once before and I learned from my mistakes.”

That emotion was exuded Sunday instead.

The numbers 3, 9, 10, 19, and 34 were painted on the sideline to honor the five well-accomplished seniors, and they were each given a bouquet of flowers and a framed jersey among other mementos (including a giant cardboard cutout of their faces) before the match.

A well-deserved sendoff, even though Arizona will be back on the pitch in just a few days.

“I think it’s nice to not have as much pressure on the last game," Brascia said. "This isn’t the end. We’re not like ‘oh my gosh’ and crying and all emotional."

“I’m sure you’ll still cry (Thursday)," Stoian joked.

“Yeah, I’m sure there will still be tears," Brascia continued, "but I think it was nice to have it as a weekend and not have it all be rushed, so that we could get recognized the right way."