Morgan McGarry was sitting in BNAD 277 on a typical Tuesday when her phone started buzzing.
Coach Amato was on the line.
“Why is Tony calling me right now?” McGarry thought, unable to pick up.
The UA head coach left a voicemail and when class ended, McGarry immediately pulled out her phone to listen to it.
“Hey Morgan,” Amato had said, “I just wanted to let you know before it was on social media that you received Pac-12 All-Second Team.”
“It was definitely a surprise,” McGarry said.
It shouldn’t have been.
“We know she had a great season, but we see her everyday. I wasn’t sure what our opponents thought in the Pac-12,” Amato said. “Are they going to vote for her? She doesn’t get goals and assists that often. She’s a defender who helps us keep the ball going forward and is dangerous in attack, but if you just go off stats, you wouldn’t necessarily know her impact.”
If you watched Arizona play you would, though.
McGarry’s impact on the Wildcats was so stunning at times that after a match against Florida Gulf Coast in September, FGCU coach Jim Blankenship had to know more about the UA defender.
“He said something to me like ‘yo, your 11 is unbelievable. Who is she? Where is she from?” Amato recalls.
Questions that a few other coaches asked Amato early in the season, and they were fair ones. McGarry had only played in four career games entering the 2017 campaign.
In one offseason, the outside back went from a rarely-used reserve to one of the Pac-12’s top players.
By season’s end, everyone knew who No. 11 was.
“It was really humbling to see that my hard work has paid off and seeing that other coaches besides our coaching staff noticed [it],” McGarry said.
“I was always thinking how I can get on the field, not I’m never going to”
McGarry’s path to prominence was anything but conventional.
The Danville, Calif. native tore her ACL in her senior year of high school and was still recovering from the injury when she arrived at Arizona.
McGarry was cleared to play just as the Wildcats opened the 2015 season, but she wasn’t performing at a high enough level to contribute, so she redshirted.
Her redshirt freshman year wasn’t much different. McGarry appeared in just four matches.
In some instances, Amato says, players who don’t see the field will start to question their commitment to the program or turn on their coaches and teammates.
“I never let myself get into that mindset,” she said. “I was always thinking how I can get on the field, not I’m never going to. So you just have to keep that competitive drive, that mentality to keep pushing yourself.”
McGarry, a two-sport athlete in high school and the daughter of a former college football player, considers herself to be an extremely competitive person.
And after watching from the sideline for two years, she made the decision to push herself even further than usual when the spring season got underway in January 2017.
McGarry won the very first running drill the team ran when they returned from winter break — and several more after that.
“Usually that’s a time for our team to have a break,” said forward Jill Aguilera. “I felt like she practiced that a lot. She would come in first and I’m like ‘how the heck are you doing that?’”
“It’s cliché, but don’t take any days off,” McGarry said. “Really just pushing myself to that limit every time we did a fitness session or in practice. In the spring, every time [trainer] Jim [Krumpos] was out there running us, my goal was not just to do the best that I could do, but win the group. It was a tangible thing that I could say ‘OK, this is what I’m trying to do.’ That was my motivation.”
Amato said McGarry’s work ethic has been “remarkable.”
“She is the person who is solid as a rock,” he said. “You need something done, she’ll get it done for you. You need her to set the example by how hard she trains, she’ll do that. You need her to be fit and run the fitness test and do really well, she’ll do that.”
McGarry said she wants to show the team’s younger players what the standard is for Arizona soccer.
For Amato, McGarry is the standard.
“It will probably get obnoxious over the years of how many times I’ve talked to the other players about what Morgan did,” Amato joked. “They will probably get sick of Morgan because I’ll be saying ‘well, Morgan did it. Morgan turned it around. Morgan pushed through it. Morgan didn’t travel (with the team) and stayed positive.’
“What do you want your program to be about? Oh, it’s Morgan. And the fact she had adversity and overcame all that is even better.”
“The change just worked”
A new mindset wasn’t the only thing that led to McGarry’s emergence. A position change was paramount, too.
Last summer, McGarry, formerly an attacking midfielder, was back home in Northern California when she got a text from Amato conveying a much different message than the one that congratulated her on getting All-Pac-12 honors.
“Hey,” he said, “what do you think about playing outside back next season?”
The Wildcats were returning several seniors on their frontline, while also adding a host of talented freshmen. Amato didn’t think McGarry would play over them, but did think she could fill a void on the backline, since that was one of the Wildcats’ weaknesses in 2016.
McGarry was all for that idea. Anything to get on the field. And just two practices into the 2017 season, it was clear she was up to the task.
“The change just worked,” Amato said.
McGarry said the transition to outside back was easier than she expected and credited assistant coach Paul Nagy and the team’s other defenders for showing her the ropes.
“I really had to focus on my defensive mindset and really be like ‘OK, I need to stop this player. They’re not getting behind me,’” she said. “Because before that, if you’re an attacking player, we …you have that person behind you in case you do get beat.”
McGarry has a wide array of responsibilities. She blocks shots, defends one-v-one, makes timely tackles, and prevents counters. She also routinely pushes the ball forward, lofts crosses into box, performs throw-ins, and occasionally gets to take a shot on goal.
McGarry said she is still learning her position, but has been doing so successfully on the fly all season.
The redshirt sophomore has started in every game — and played nearly every minute — for Arizona, anchoring a backline that has surrendered just 15 goals in 19 games. A few weeks ago, McGarry even recorded her first career assist on a well-placed cross.
“My opportunity came and I was able to play the way I needed to in a position that fit well, and it led to me being able to help our team,” she said.
Indeed, the Wildcats won seven conference games for the first time in program history, and are set to take Florida State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday with a chance to reach their third Sweet 16 in program history.
Where would this Arizona team be without the emergence of its star outside back? Amato asked himself that question the other day.
“You’d like to think that somebody else would have stepped up,” he said, “but she kinda squashed all that and said it’s her spot and she’s been rewarded for it. We’ve had a good season, she’s played every minute, and she was all-conference.”
He added: “The character that she has shown to come off an ACL injury, not travel, and really challenge herself to make the commitment that she made from January through now has been absolutely remarkable. All credit to her.”