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Arizona soccer notebook: On Wildcats’ postseason outlook, the Bay Area, Pac-12 road trips, and more

How can Arizona make the NCAA Tournament this year? Simple. Finish over .500.

Photo courtesy Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats had the eighth-toughest non-conference schedule in the country, but they’ve seen nothing yet.

Their next two games are on the road at No. 2 Stanford and No. 13 Cal. Then they’ll host No. 10 USC and No. 1 UCLA next weekend.

Four arduous games in a row.

“What four?” UA head coach Tony Amato joked. “We play Stanford this week. That’s all I know about.”

The Wildcats currently sit at 4-2-2, riding a three-game winning streak. Arizona won their Pac-12 opener vs. Oregon 3-1 last Saturday, a massive victory for their postseason outlook.

“Overall you’ve got to go over .500 to go the (NCAA Tournament),” said Amato, whose team missed the postseason last year for the first since since 2014.

With four back-breaking games coming up, the Wildcats would benefit immensely from getting a favorable result or two before their schedule softens (relatively speaking) in the latter half of conference play.

While the Wildcats are set to play four ranked teams in a row, they only play one ranked team in their final six conference games (No. 24 Utah).

“When your non-conference (record) is as close as we were to .500, we’ve gotta win some games here,” Amato said. “I don’t think in the history of the Pac-12, anyone’s ever gone 6-4-1 in the 11 games and not made the tournament.”

In 2014, Arizona made the NCAA Tournament with a 4-6-1 conference record, but they had a 7-2-1 non-conference record that year.

“This isn’t that kind of year for us, so we know that we’re going to have to be above .500,” Amato said.

So even a tie or two against these powerful California schools would be welcomed.

And first up is No. 2 Stanford (8-1) in Palo Alto on Thursday at 7 p.m., a team Arizona has taken to overtime three times in the last four seasons.

“We know that we can come out and challenge them if we play our game,” said UA midfielder Morgan McGarry. “It can end up being a great game for us, and if we end up getting a tie or win, it’s going to be just what we want.”

Our full preview for Thursday’s game vs. Stanford can be found here.

Stoian chasing records, likely to return Thursday

Arizona will likely be getting midfielder Gabi Stoian back Thursday vs. the Cardinal.

The senior, who missed two games with a leg injury, said she is not 100 percent yet, but is doing “a lot better than I was.”

Stoian said sitting out has been frustrating, especially since she’s on the verge of making history.

The midfielder is six goals and five assists shy of breaking UA’s all-time records.

“I definitely want to break the records, but the team’s been doing well this season in the games I haven’t played, so that’s all I can ask for,” Stoian said.

Indeed. Arizona’s attack has actually experienced an uptick without Stoian, scoring five goals in their last two games. They scored five goals in their first six games.

Amato says it’s not a coincidence, as it forces Stoian’s teammates to step out of “Go Gabi Go” mode and not rely on her so much.

"I agree with that, but they’ve done a great job creating chances, especially set pieces,” Stoian said.

Stoian admits she thinks about the records, but knows there’s still 10 games left to shatter them — at least.

“We’ll make the tournament, make a run there, and extend the (season),” she said.

Those Pac-12 road trips

Arizona left for the Bay Area on Wednesday morning and won’t return to Tucson until Sunday night — just your typical Pac-12 road trip after the conference transitioned away from Friday-Sunday pairings.

“They’re definitely fun,” McGarry said. “You really create bonds with these teams because you’re together all the time.”

Arizona plays Stanford on Thursday and Cal on Sunday.

On Friday and Saturday, the Wildcats’ days off, they will train, recover, and throw in a couple team activities, like heading to the movies.

Meanwhile, the coaching staff never stops preparing.

“It’s actually really good because it gives me some time to do video with some people, meet with some people,” Amato said. “We don’t rest for a minute from a staff standpoint. ... You just have to make sure you’re not out of gas Sunday.”

Of course, there’s schoolwork, too.

The Wildcats won’t be traveling with an academic counselor this week (they will when they travel to Utah and Colorado, because of midterms) but Amato usually doesn’t have to worry about his team hitting the books.

“Honestly there’s really only one or two people that you have to lean on a little bit,” he said. “For the most part, they’re on top of it. They get stressed about school more than I would worry about it. They handle all that for me.”

Seven Wildcats earned Pac-12 Academic honors last season and in 2015-16, Arizona received the College Team Academic Award, awarded by the NSCAA.

Student-athletes are allotted study time during road trips, in addition to the time they spend studying on the plane and/or bus, or between meals.

“I try and download documents that I have to read for school so I don’t need WiFi or anything to do them,” said Jill Aguilera, a general studies major.

Missing several days of class during these road trips, student-athletes often have to be proactive with their studies so they don’t fall behind their classmates.

“I try and get ahead,” Aguilera said. “I try and talk to my professors as much as possible just so I’m not too behind. A lot of professors do really understand us being absent from class and how important athletics are to us, so they try and accommodate as much as they can.”

The nearly week long road trips are certainly chaotic in some ways, but in other ways they make it easier to zero in on the matches ahead — and in this case, both games are extremely important.

“When you’re home, you’re going to classes, you have other tasks that you have to get done throughout the day,” Stoian said. “It’s nice just being able to focus on these two games.”

“I wanted to stay home but....”

Both Aguilera, a Redwood City, Calif. native, and McGarry, a Danville, Calif. native, will have friends and family in attendance for this weekend’s contests in the Bay Area.

“I’m really excited,” McGarry said. “We haven’t gone to Cal or Stanford ... in the three years that I’ve been here. So I’m really looking forward to be able to go out there.”

Aguilera grew up five minutes from Palo Alto and occasionally watched the hometown Cardinal at Laird Q. Cagan Stadium as a kid.

She imagined playing there one day, but is happy to be in Tucson.

“I knew that it was a really hard reach to get (to Stanford),” she said. “Of course I emailed them to come to my games during my recruitment. I also had Cal come to my games and stuff, too. I wanted to stay at home, but I feel like Arizona is a better fit for me.”

McGarry has started every game for the Wildcats this season, but Aguilera’s playing time has fluctuated.

After missing last season with a torn ACL, Aguilera has appeared in seven of Arizona’s eight games this season, ranging from 10 minutes of playing time to 57.

As much as Amato would like to let his players take the field in front of their friends and family, he can’t let that influence his rotations.

“It can’t factor in because everyone’s from somewhere,” he said. “We have kids from Seattle and we play UW. Or from Denver and we play Colorado. It’s not fair to the kids.

“We’re limited to who we’re allowed to take, so if I left someone at home and took someone because they’re from that area, that doesn’t sound fair.”