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Kate Norton’s experience, attention to detail benefitting Arizona soccer in historic season

Photo courtesy Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics

It’s 3:06 p.m. on a cool, overcast October day when Kate Norton has finally finished setting up for Arizona soccer’s typical 3:30 Tuesday training session.

Wait, not yet.

The first-year assistant coach grabs a ball from a pile on the sideline, fills it with just the right amount of air, and puts it directly on the touchline next to 10 other balls that were worthy of making the cut.

Now she’s done.

“I am a tidy, particular person,” says Norton, who arrives at least an hour before practices, “so it just spills out into the session.”

It’s true. Norton’s perfectionism is littered all around Murphey Field.

Four piles of pinnies, each a different color, have been neatly folded along the sideline, not too far from the 11 carefully-lined soccer balls. Four blue Powerade totes are lined up nearby.

Near midfield, goals, cones, and green pinnies (those are always used for the team’s first drill) have been strategically positioned on the pitch — and not just for the reasons you’d think.

“I always try to find the nicest patch of grass,” Norton says. “I don’t like to go on the same patch of grass one day after the next because then that specific area will get worn out.”

There’s more.

Norton unfolds a front-and-back diagram of a soccer field, which outlines the upcoming session.

On it, Norton has marked down the exact minute each drill will start, the initials of the participants, and which part of the field the drill will take place among other details like which pinnies the players will wear.

“If you’re wearing the wrong mesh pinny,” midfielder Kelcey Cavarra warns, “you’ll get called out.”

But there is a reason for Norton’s madness. How a team plays is reflective of how it trains. And how it trains is one of the few things it can control during the season. Therefore it needs to be an efficient, effective process.

“I don’t want to waste 10 minutes in between one exercise to another because we have to find new pinnies or we don’t know who’s on what team,” Norton said. “So I’ve embraced that role.”

Arizona head coach Tony Amato, who hired Norton in May, said he didn’t think it was possible to find an assistant that pays more attention to detail than he does.

One look at Murphey Field before an Arizona practice says otherwise.

“This is how it should be,” Norton says.

She would know.

Norton’s meticulous training sessions are partly the product of her personality, but they also reflect her past.

Prior to joining Amato’s staff, Norton was the Team Services Coordinator for the MLS’ Seattle Sounders, and before that she was a stalwart in the Tucson soccer community.

Norton was the Camps and Clinics Director for FC Tucson from 2012 to 2016, the FC Tucson Academy Girls' head coach in 2015, and the Director of the Tanque Verde Soccer Club from 2010 to 2016.

She was also a four-year starter in college at Cincinnati and played professionally for three seasons, including a two-year stint in the Czech Republic.

So Norton knows what a productive training session entails. Now the Wildcats do, too.

“I’ve been exposed to the MLS professional environment, the USL professional environment, and the PDL amateur level for eight years, and working in Seattle I would work Copa America,” Norton said. “So I was able to see Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, the US, all those teams that came through Seattle and I would work with them and see how their sessions are set up.

“And there’s nothing that separates us, as far as setting up a session with the resources that we have, from a national team, or a professional team, or an amateur team.”

Norton’s experience is why Amato once told himself that if he ever had an opening on his staff, she would be his No. 1 target.

The two met shortly after Amato was hired by Arizona in 2013. His staff often held camps in Tanque Verde and frequented Kino Stadium, where FC Tucson plays.

But it wasn’t until last April when now-former assistant Kylie Louw left for NAU that Amato actually had the opportunity to hire Norton.

Yet, there was a new problem: Norton left Tucson in 2016 to work for the Sounders.

Amato was not completely out of luck, though. While Norton enjoyed her position in Seattle, it was primarily an administrative job.

So when Amato called to discuss a coaching position, Norton was interested. A few conversations later, she agreed to visit the UA.

“I had been to a basketball game and a football game and some soccer games, but had never really been in McKale Center in the weight room or been out to a session or anything, and it blew me away,” she said.

“The girls were hard-working, and it’s the Pac-12, I missed coaching, and I missed that coach-player interaction. It was just something I couldn’t say no to.”

Seven months later, as Arizona has just completed arguably its best season in program history, Amato is glad she didn’t.

“Her ideas are good, she’s super detailed and organized. She doesn’t miss a beat, so she’s been super valuable, especially to me,” Amato said. “You just want your assistants to be competent and take some things off your plate and she definitely helps with that.”

Kooky. Quirky. Crazy.

Those are all words UA players have used to describe Norton.

“I’m a little bit nitpicky about things,” she admits, “which I’m sure you’ve heard about.”

Yeah. Here’s one story.

When the Wildcats are on the road, Norton holds what’s called “snack shop” in her hotel room. Players venture in and out to grab a drink or a bite to eat, and Norton uses the occasion to check in with them.

“It’s nice and informal,” she said.

Most of the time, anyway.

While staying in Tempe in September, one player tossed an entire case of water on Norton’s bed. Norton, who is as tidy off the field as she is on the field, wasn’t pleased and lashed out.

“I thought I handled it well,” she said. “Apparently I didn’t, but I don’t like it when they touch my stuff.”

The players know that. They are told not to touch Norton’s bed, shoes, or anything in her room, but ... sometimes they do it anyway.

“It’s funny,” joked UA senior Gabi Stoian.

“Her shoes have to be in a certain place,” said forward Charlotte Brascia. “If you mess them up, she fixes them right away. She’s crazy about that.”

The same thing happens on the field if Arizona’s players wear the wrong color pinny or “forget” to fold them before putting them back on the pile.

“She’s very OCD about everything,” Stoian said.

Friendly antics aside, Arizona’s players have taken well to Norton, who they say has a professional yet personal coaching style.

“She’s hard, but she knows how to tell us how to do something without us getting pissed off,” said UA midfielder Kennedy Kieneker.

Norton majored in education at Cincinnati and says that helps her understand how to push all the right buttons.

“Everyone has different ways to learn,” Norton explained. “Whether they have to hear it, or they have to see it, or both, or they need a hand on their shoulder or they need a good kick in the pants. Whatever it is, there’s different ways to approach teaching and there’s different ways that people learn.

“Whether it’s Kennedy watching film or whether it’s Kennedy and giving her a face and pointing at her, or it’s Charlotte and I have to lean into her a little bit harder or it’s Brandi (Park) and I give her a thumbs up or thumbs down. It’s figuring each kid out and creating those relationships on the field and off the field and letting them know that it’s OK to make mistakes, but at the same time they’re going to be held to a really high standard.”

While Norton’s presence has benefitted the entire team, she has especially made an impact on Cavarra and Kieneker, UA’s midfielders, who have been vital to Arizona’s success in 2017.

“(Norton) definitely has an affinity for the type of players that Kennedy and Kelcey are because she was that type of player,” Amato said. “So she has definitely connected with them and they’ve been better players”

Cavarra and Kieneker both said their improvement stems from Norton’s attention to detail.

For instance, Cavarra said the first time Norton ever coached her, Norton asked her what formation their opponent plays. Cavarra didn’t know. She never used to think about the other team.

“If you go in and play as the 6 but you don’t know there’s one next to you and you don’t know how many attacking mids they have or how many forwards they have, that’s a huge disadvantage, and again, something we can control,” Norton said. “And it helps their soccer IQ.”

So does reviewing film with players, which Amato said Norton goes above and beyond with.

“A little video, telling them on the field, reminding them, all these little things and just being in their ear builds their confidence and it translates to the field,” he said.

Indeed, in Norton’s first season with the program, Arizona won seven conference games for the first time in program history, had its best finish in the Pac-12 era, and is set to host an NCAA Tournament game for just the second time in program history.

A coincidence?

“Yes,” Norton said. “The girls work really, really hard and they’ve earned every bit of their success. ... We can prepare them as much as we can, but they’re the ones scoring the goals, they’re the ones making the 60-yard recovery runs ... It’s completely the players. 100 percent.”

They’re not so sure.

“She’s been a huge difference, honestly,” Kieneker said. “I don’t know about Kelcey but I’ve improved so much as a player since she’s been here.”

“Definitely,” Cavarra agreed. “It’s the little things, but that’s helped me so much.”