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Arizona soccer can make history with win vs. ASU

There are several firsts on the line for the UA program Thursday

Photo courtesy Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics

Five banners adorn the brick walls of Arizona soccer’s clubhouse at Mulcahy Stadium, honoring the program’s greatest seasons.

Four commemorate the UA’s NCAA Tournament appearances (2004, 2005, 2014, 2015), while the fifth celebrates the 2004 team that earned the program’s only Pac-12 championship.

Yet, the 2017 squad has a chance to accomplish a feat that not even those four historic teams could: win more than six conference games.

Arizona is 6-2-2 in the Pac-12 with a rivalry game Thursday against ASU still on tap.

“That would be incredible for our whole class,” said UA senior Gabi Stoian who was a member of the 2014 and 2015 teams.

“Coming in, we made a tournament appearance for the first time since 2005, so that was a big step and ever since, we’ve just tried to set that standard for this program. It would mean a lot knowing how far we were able to get.”

Before this season, Arizona had won six Pac-12 games only twice. And never five. Eleven times they had won one game or fewer.

So this program winning seven games in the nation’s toughest conference? A huge deal.

“It would be a great achievement to win seven games, especially with the way the schedule mapped out,” head coach Tony Amato said.

Indeed. Things could have gotten ugly quickly for the Wildcats.

Four of their first five conference games were against the fearsome foursome that is the California schools — Cal, Stanford, USC, UCLA. The other was a must-win home game against lowly Oregon.

UA beat the Ducks, beat No. 11 Cal, tied No. 1 UCLA, and lost one-goal matches to No. 2 Stanford and No. 6 USC.

“That (first stretch) felt pretty daunting and the girls maneuvered that and handled that pretty well,” Amato said. “So I think (winning seven games) would be a great accomplishment and one we would talk to the team about and celebrate that there’s something tangible there that they’ve done really well with.”

Arizona is 4-0-1 in their last five games, looking like a California school themselves.

They are currently in fourth in the Pac-12 and have a chance to finish third — which would be their best finish in the Pac-12 era — if they beat ASU in their regular season finale, and USC beats UCLA.

Not bad for a team that was picked to finish ninth.

“I don’t know how much I put into the preseason voting, but I think what was interesting this year was that we finished seventh last year and they assumed that we got worse in the offseason and dropped us to ninth,” Amato said.

“I think we did take note of that. We didn’t make it a big deal, but we did take note of it. To finish third would show just how far the group has come from the beginning of the year.”

But Arizona has to beat their in-state rival first, and that has never been easy. UA is 3-17-2 all-time against ASU. The schools have split the last two matchups, with the road team winning each time.

Arizona, which hosts Thursday’s match, has been the better program recently, but Amato still thinks the rivalry games are essentially a coin flip.

Proof of that: In 2011, Arizona won just one game all season, yet lost just 2-1 to ASU in a game that was decided in the final minutes.

In a six-year stretch from 2007 to 2012, every game in the series was decided by one goal.

And just last season, Arizona beat ASU 1-0 thanks to a goal scored in the 65th minute.

“That’s probably proof enough that no matter what the records are, it’s going to be really a tight battle anyway,” Amato said.

ASU is 5-10-3 overall and 2-6-3 in the Pac-12, setting up a match reminiscent of the battle in 2015 when the underachieving Sun Devils routed the NCAA Tournament-bound Wildcats 4-1 on Senior Day in Tucson.

ASU’s Cali Farquharson had a hat trick, and Mckenzie Berryhill taunted the pro-UA crowd after notching a goal of her own.

Because why not? ASU had nothing to lose.

“They played with a freedom of ‘this is our last game, let’s have it and beat UA’,” Amato recalls, “so I think no matter what (Thursday) will be a tight game.”

All but in

A new banner will be put up at Mulcahy Stadium regardless of what happens Thursday, as Arizona is a virtual lock to make the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years (another first for the program).

The only question now is whether or not they will host a first-round match — and they likely will if they can avoid a loss to ASU.

The Wildcats (9-4-4 overall) are 20th in RPI and 27th in the Coaches Poll entering the week. 64 teams make the tournament, and the top 32 teams host the first round.

“We all love playing at home under the lights in front of our home fans, so I think it would just be a better environment for us,” Stoian said of the possibility of hosting.

Arizona hosted an NCAA Tournament game in 2015 for the first time in school history, beating Northern Colorado in an eventual run to the Sweet 16.

Hosting a second time would be even sweeter.

“It would be a great reward for our girls and our fans,” Amato said. “I think we’ve had a great turnout this year and to reward them with an NCAA game and to do it a second time just feels like a good accomplishment. It makes it feel like the time we did it before isn’t just a one-off or flash in the pan.”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire