When the Arizona Wildcats were picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12, Tony Amato gathered his team in the locker room to share the news.
“We didn’t make it a big deal,” he said, “but we did take note of it.”
Having finished seventh the year before, the Wildcats felt slighted.
“No one knew how talented we were going to be,” said UA forward Charlotte Brascia.
They sure do now.
Arizona beat ASU 2-1 on Thursday in Tucson to finish the regular season 10-4-4 overall and 7-2-2 in the Pac-12, moving into third place in the nation’s top conference.
It’s the first time Arizona, anything but a traditional powerhouse, has ever won more than six conference games in a season.
“It feels like a really big, awesome accomplishment that I’m looking forward to tell the girls about,” Amato said after the game. “It’s hard to win games, it’s hard to win games in this league, and to make history with winning seven Pac-12 games, that feels really good.”
Amanda Porter was the hero in the historic win, notching the game-winner in the 74th minute.
The freshman collected a pass from Gabi Stoian on the left side of the box and ripped a shot off the diving keeper’s hands, which eventually trickled into the back of net.
“The goalie was cheating a little bit, so I thought I would try and catch her off guard and get it on frame and luckily she tapped it in for me,” Porter said.
“She loves the near post,” Brascia joked.
Porter’s tally occurred just seven minutes after ASU had scored the equalizer.
ASU senior Jazmarie Mader lined a shot into the top left corner of the net, giving the Sun Devils short-lived hope.
“The game went exactly how you think a rivalry game would go,” Amato said. “This was (ASU’s) last game. They knew coming in it was their last game and I knew they were going to play like it was an NCAA Tournament game against a rival. That’s how they came out and played and that didn’t surprise me at all.”
But Arizona remained poised and improved to 7-4 in matches decided by one goal, a stark difference from the 2016 season in which Arizona finished 4-6-1 in the Pac-12.
“Finding ways to grind out and win games, that’s the difference in winning this season,” Amato said.
Last week, Arizona scored twice in the second half in a 2-1 comeback victory over Washington.
“We have the grit, the hard work, and we never give up on each other. We always have each other’s backs,” Stoian said. “Once we get scored on, we want to turn it around and get that next goal.”
Hannah Clifford put Arizona up 1-0 in the 38th minute, tapping in Brascia’s rebound from close range for her second career goal.
It was the second time this season that Porter and Clifford, two freshmen, have scored in the same game. The other instance was when Arizona erased a 2-0 deficit and tied then-No. 1 UCLA for the first time in school history on Oct. 8.
“They always find a way to make a play,” Stoian said.
So does this Arizona team as a whole. The Wildcats are 5-0-2 in their last seven games, and have not lost since Oct. 5, when they fell to then-No. 6 USC on a penalty kick.
They’re playing their best soccer of the season and, perhaps, in program history.
“Sometimes in the season, you start off really well and peak early in the year and stumble into the postseason,” Amato said. “I think this team found our identity later in the year and that’s led to wins here down the stretch.”
Arizona entered the weekend 20th in RPI, and Amato believes they are on track to host the first round of the NCAA Tournament after beating ASU.
If they do, it would only be the Wildcats’ second time hosting a postseason game. The first was back in 2015 when the UA eventually made a run to the Sweet 16.
“We’ve made it this far but we’re not done yet,” Stoian said. “We’re just getting started."
Still, Arizona will certainly have time to enjoy their seventh conference win.
After the once-full Mulcahy Stadium had emptied Thursday, three deafening cheers rang out from the Wildcats’ raucous postgame huddle.
"One was for making history,” Stoian said, “two were for getting Friday and Saturday off.”
- With usual-starter Brandi Park out with a leg injury, sophomore defender Leah Carillo made her second career start for the Wildcats. “She did well,” Amato said. “She’s from the Phoenix area, so she’s always up for this game and she did a great job tonight.”
- Freshman midfielder Bryanna Duckett played 22 minutes Thursday, nearly a career-high. “Sometimes with freshmen it takes them a little bit of time to find their way and she’s been someone who’s been progressing this season,” Amato said.
- UA forward Jill Aguilera started, but only played 35 minutes. “Jill’s biggest strength is she is able to use her speed to get behind players and every time we got the ball, their backline dropped to the top of the box. There was no space behind and we have some other players that are really good playing in front of the backline and we had to go to that today,” Amato said. “It was a matchup thing.”
- Shout out to the 942 Crew which had an impressive showing at Mulcahy. They were loud, too, but were rivaled by the UA men’s club soccer team, making for an interesting atmosphere. “It was great,” Amato said. “Having the ASU section there definitely got our crowd going and able to respond and it’s a great way to cap off the regular season with a great attendance and buzz and vibe in the crowd.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire