Pack through Sunday.
That's what head coach Tony Amato told his team as they wrapped up their training session Wednesday before departing for Palo Alto.
"We’re not going to just play two games, but win two games," he said. “Pack for the whole weekend and have belief that we’re going to do that.”
The Wildcats and Seminoles will square off in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday at 5:30 p.m. MST at Stanford's Laird Q. Cagan Stadium.
“We have to outcompete them. They’re a possession-oriented team that passes it around and we’re going to have to disrupt that similar to some of the other Pac-12 schools that we play against,” Amato said.
“When we do that against the USCs, UCLAs of the world, when we disrupt what they’re doing, we’re way more effective and way more dangerous, so it will be similar to that.”
Arizona is undefeated in its last eight games, going 6-0-2 including a 2-1 comeback victory over TCU in the first round of the tourney.
The Wildcats (11-4-4 overall, 7-2-2 Pac-12) have not lost since Oct. 5.
“I think it’s our team chemistry, honestly,” said UA forward Jill Aguilera of the team’s recent success. “We seem to be working a lot better together as a whole instead of individually. I think that’s really important. You could have allthese amazing players on a team, but it’s not going to be successful unless you all work together and I think that’s what we’re doing.”
Florida State (12-6-1, 5-4-1 ACC) beat Ole Miss 5-0 in its first round match. The Seminoles have a top-20 offense in the country and led the ACC in scoring average, tallying 2.3 goals per game.
They are led by sophomore forward Deyna Castellanos. The Venezuelan star led the ACC in goals scored (17) and was recently named one of the finalists for the FIFA Best Women’s Player in the World award.
“We know that we’ll have to stop her and she’ll have to be accounted for, but they have good players all over the field,” Amato said.
“I thought in the Ole Miss game, (the Rebels) stood off them and that leads to (FSU) scoring goals. We’re going to have to outcompete them and be willing to block their shots, be willing to block crosses, not be passively defending and closing space and eliminating time and space. Of course, (goalkeeper) Lainey (Burdett) is going to have to make a save or two.”
Arizona has only surrendered more than one goal in a match three times all season, thanks to the play of Burdett and their aggressive style of defense.
“We high press and we’re in your face,” said Burdett, a Pac-12 All-Second Team goalkeeper. “We don’t give them any room to breathe or stay composed and pass around. They have to make quick decisions. I hope they think that it sucks that they have to play us.”
Scoring goals was an issue at times for the Wildcats early in the season, but they have tallied seven in their last four games.
“Early on, we only knew our defending identity and that was why we didn’t give up many goals, but we didn’t score many,” Amato said.
“In the past we had flip-throws and we were going to manufacture goals that way and win aerial challenges off of those and win second balls. With this team, it was more breaking lines with passes, and playing into Char [Brascia’s] feet up top, and Jill stretching and Gabi [Stoian] playing underneath the forwards. Just some attacking combinations that maybe weren’t as clear-cut in the past.”
The Wildcats scored two goals in the final 17 minutes against TCU to escape with the victory and keep their season alive.
Arizona trailed 1-0 at halftime before the second-half surge.
“It was the first time I had looked at (our players) that it seemed like they thought ‘oh we might lose,’” Amato said. “I felt like there was confidence all week and confidence at kickoff. And at halftime down 1-0 I think it started to enter their heads that there is a possibility that we wouldn’t win.”
Oh, it did.
“We we’re all upset at halftime and that’s when we’re like, ‘screw this we’re going to go out (and win),’” Aguilera said. “And I feel like if we just did that from the beginning, it would be a lot better and probably a lot more fun for us at halftime than being scolded at.”
Arizona will feel right at home in Palo Alto this weekend, as it just played there against Stanford back in September. Amato doesn’t know how much of an advantage that familiarity is, but the team is comfortable in the Bay Area, nonetheless.
“We know where we’re staying, we know some of the restaurants we like, we know the trip and the flight we got. All of that is familiar. We feel like we just did it two weeks ago,” he said.
“Obviously it was longer than that, but we feel comfortable with it and I think that will help us. I don’t feel as rushed. … That’s helpful for us because it can be super hectic this time of year.”
If Arizona beats Florida State, it would play either Auburn or No. 1 Stanford on Sunday. It would be just the third time in program history that Arizona advanced to the Sweet 16, another achievement in what has been a historic season for the Wildcats, who won seven conference games for the first time in program history.
“I am in a place where I don’t want this season to end because every team and year is different,” Amato said. “You lose players, new players come in. Do you have injuries? Do you win a game early? Do you bounce back from a loss? All those things impact your season, so we’re in a good place and you just don’t know what it’s going to look like after that. I like where the group is and I want to keep it going.”
So do Arizona’s seniors.
The current senior class has won more games than any other (45) and is responsible for four of the program’s six NCAA Tournament victories.
On Wednesday, they trained at Mulcahy Stadium for the last time — unless, of course, they win two games in Palo Alto like they plan.
“It’s emotional, but I’ve had so much fun,” said senior forward Charlotte Brascia after Wednesday’s practice.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m really happy where we are and I hope we can go a little further and hopefully I can train back here again next week, too.”
Thursday’s match will be live streamed on Stanford’s Facebook page, which you can find here.