One day, nights like this Friday will be the norm for Arizona soccer, head coach Tony Amato hopes.
“I would like to get the program to a point where the expectation is to make the tournament and when you have a down year you get in and play on the road,” Amato said. “Where as right now, we’ve gotten the program to the point where a down year is missing the tournament.”
Which is already an improvement in its own right. Before Amato arrived in 2013, Arizona had not reached the tournament since 2005.
“Last year, we won nine games,” he said. “That used to be like ‘wow, that’s an unbelievable season.’’’
The 2017 season actually has been an unbelievable one for Arizona by any standard.
Picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12, the Wildcats (10-4-4 overall, 7-2-2 Pac-12) won seven conference games for the first time in program history, had their best finish in the Pac-12 era, and are now hosting a rare NCAA Tournament match.
Not to mention they enter the tournament on a seven-game unbeaten streak (5-0-2) and have not lost in over a month.
Still, that hardly matters anymore. Starting Friday it’s win or go home.
“Anything goes,” said UA midfielder Kelcey Cavarra. “It’s unpredictable. We all have our rankings and we know who’s No. 1 and who’s last, but I think anything can happen in a tournament game.”
TCU (12-6-3, 6-2-1 Big 12), like Arizona, is entering the tournament having one of its best seasons in program history.
The Horned Frogs finished third in the Big 12 and are making just their second tournament appearance ever.
Unlike Arizona, though, TCU is a little beaten up. Not only did three Horned Frogs get injured in the Big 12 Tournament last week, they also had to play three games in five days.
Arizona played just once last week.
“Our trainers have done a wonderful job getting our kids back to where they need to be, so we will be fine,” TCU coach Eric Bell said, via TCU360. “Playing three games in five days is really tough on their bodies, so we are in the process of recovering from that right now. Hopefully, by Friday we will be ready to go.”
Bell said Arizona is similar schematically to Baylor, which won the Big 12 Tournament. Amato doesn’t mind that comparison.
“I haven’t seen Baylor that much this year, but Baylor won the Big 12, so it sounds OK,” he laughed.
“I haven’t watched Baylor vs. (TCU), but I’ll watch it and see what the comparison is. If he’s making that comparison, then I can watch that game and know that that’s how the game will look. Maybe that’s what he’s thinking gameplan-wise or he’s trying to throw me off.”
Amato didn’t know much about TCU before Selection Monday, but he’s watched the Horned Frogs’ game vs. Oklahoma — a mutual opponent — among other video of them.
Both Arizona and TCU beat the Sooners, 2-0.
“That result was the same exact and the game looked similar to ours,” Amato said. “They’re going to be a good team. They’re in the NCAA Tournament for a reason. We’ll have to play our A-game if we’re gonna win.”
The winner will play either Ole Miss or Florida State in the Round of 32 next Friday (likely in Palo Alto, Calif.). The loser will start preparing for next season.
“Throughout the season, if we win, lose, or draw, we have training the next day to work on some things or build on some things,” Amato said. “Where as this, as much as you try to downplay it, the players know if we don’t win, the season is over. That’s the biggest difference — making sure that doesn’t get to the players.”
Cavarra doesn’t think Arizona’s approach this week has been any different than it was in the regular season.
“All of our games in the Pac-12 are super tough. We had to get through each one of those one at a time, so that’s how we’re looking at it,” she said.
Even though Arizona is hosting Friday’s game, the NCAA requires teams to treat it as if they had to travel to a neutral site for the game.
In other words, both teams are only allowed to suit up 22 players and can only have a limited number of personnel on the sideline.
“In the past we’ve had to have players sit in the stands,” Amato said. “That’s ridiculous, but that’s a rule and we follow it.”
Park likely to play
Arizona centerback Brandi Park is likely to play Friday, Amato said.
Park, who had a walking boot on her foot last week, was limited in training Wednesday, but Amato said the team is “progressing” her for Friday.
“She probably could have trained the whole time [Wednesday] but we’re trying to make sure she’s at a good place for Friday,” he said.
Park, a senior who transferred in from Pima Community College in 2016, missed last Thursday’s game vs. ASU.
Prior to that, she had started in every game for the Wildcats, generally playing the full 90, anchoring an Arizona backline that has been solid this season.
If she were unable to play, sophomore Leah Carillo would likely make her second straight start.
In a way, Arizona has already won just by making it to the NCAA Tournament.
At least that’s true from a recruiting standpoint.
“When you’re not in, you’re trying to convince (recruits) that we are going to be good and your experience will be making runs in the NCAA Tournament,” Amato said.
“When you win, it’s tangible stuff to say — you don’t even have to really say it. We’re in. I talked to a recruit last night who’s really excited. We want her to come and she’s talking between us and a school that’s not in. And you can leverage that in those times.”
Proof: Arizona’s 2018 class, a highly-regarded one that will be signing in February, was committed all the way back in 2015 when Arizona made its run to the Sweet 16.
“The program only gets better through recruiting,” Amato said. “So the players that we have are obviously in a place where they’re coming from good clubs and good areas. And recruiting is so far ahead that the ’18 class committed to us when we went to the Sweet 16. So we had momentum, a good vibe, we were making a run in the tournament, so that class people wanted to be a part of.
“We’re excited about where we are now and we’re excited about the future.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire