Strength of schedule is one metric the Arizona Wildcats soccer team relies on to boost its NCAA Tournament résumé, and this weekend it will be hosting Florida Gulf Coast and Texas Tech, two squads that made the postseason a year ago.
Those are exactly the type of non-conference home games UA head coach Tony Amato wants on the schedule.
“That’s exactly what I want if we win the games,” he corrected with a laugh. “If we don’t it’s going to be like ‘that’s not what we needed right now.’”
The Wildcats enter with a 1-1-2 record and desperately need to get back into the win column. Last weekend they lost a 2-1 heartbreaker to then-No. 24 UCF and drew 1-1 against Boston University in Tempe.
Amato didn’t think Arizona played with a great sense of urgency.
“There have been many moments this year where I shared with them any sort of real disappointment in the effort part,” he said, referring to the game vs. BU. “We can get frustrated with a ball should’ve gone here, a player should’ve gone there, but I didn’t feel like we were very hungry on the day. And I just sent that message that we gotta be hungrier or we’re not going to win the game. And we can talk tactics and all those sorts of things, but if we’re not hungry then it’ll be pretty flatlined.”
FGCU enters the weekend with a 5-1 record and on a four-game winning streak. Texas Tech is 4-1 and winners of two straight.
Arizona has tied Texas Tech the last two seasons.
“It could be a really important weekend for us if we can find ways to get good results in both games, because I would be shocked if both of these teams were not once again in the NCAA Tournament,” Amato said. “So it’ll be a challenge. Last week was a challenge and this presents itself as a different challenge. We’re good enough to win both games and if we do, that will propel us forward.”
The Wildcats only have three more games before they get into the bloodbath that is Pac-12 conference play.
Six teams in the Pac-12 are currently ranked in the Top 25. The other six are, well, still really good.
“It’s the best women’s soccer conference in the country,” Amato said. “Ranked teams is one thing, but if you look top to bottom there’s no relief anywhere in this league. And obviously you have some of the schools at the top that are the elite, elite and everyone else is really good.
“The margin of error is so small in our league that if you don’t bring it on that day, you can expect to lose in the Pac.”
Which is why the matches against FGCU and Texas Tech are so important. Not only are they an opportune time for Arizona to grab résumé-boosting wins over NCAA Tournament-caliber teams, but they also give Amato another chance to evaluate his team and make any necessary changes before conference play.
“Sometimes if your non-conference (schedule) is not tough, then you’ve played four games and you don’t know anything about your team because it hasn’t looked anything like a Pac-12 game,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the case for us this year.”
UA midfielder Kelcey Cavarra said the team’s non-conference schedule is “hard, but exciting.” Before the season, it was ranked the eighth toughest non-conference schedule in the nation.
“You get a look at a bunch of different teams,” Cavarra said. “You really get to challenge yourself and see where you stand as a team and as an individual.”
Arizona takes on FGCU at 7:30 p.m. MST on Friday and Texas Tech on Sunday at 6 p.m. MST. Both games will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks.
If you want to go to both games and Arizona football’s game vs. Houston on Saturday, Arizona Athletics is offering a pretty sweet deal.
Freshman Sabrina Enciso has started every game at left back for the Wildcats this season, contributing to a back line that’s allowed just three goals in four games.
Known for her prowess as a 1-v-1 defender and distant throw-ins, Enciso has had a fairly seamless transition into the collegiate game, but she’s noticed one major difference in the gameplay.
“There are some big girls out there,” she said. “They are strong.”
The 5-foot-5 Enciso isn’t the biggest player on the field, but Amato said her athleticism is “off the charts.”
“Sometimes you watch players and you’re like ‘she’s a really good soccer player, but not that athletic’ and sometimes you watch players and they’re really athletic but not that great of a soccer player and she has both of them,” he said.
“I think she’s just going to get better and better. When you think about her in two years from now, she’ll be even more athletic from the Pac-12 strength and conditioning program and have two years of experience at this level, she’s gonna be pretty stinking good.”
Enciso is the first person in her family — one she describes as “super Mexican” and “straight out of Mexico” — to attend college. Her father didn’t finish high school, while her mother and two sisters “barely” graduated.
“I know when we went through the recruiting process with her, [going to college] was really important to her and it meant a lot to her and obviously that stems from her parents,” Amato said. “They really wanted that for her and they put her in a good situation where she played for a really good club team and made that commitment to make that happen.”
The Moreno Valley, Calif. native played for the So Cal Blues, and knew she would play college ball as soon as she joined that team.
“That’s the first thing they engraved into your head,” Enciso said. “You’re here because it’s fun, but in the long run it’s going to get a lot better.”
And it did.
Enciso was recruited heavily by Washington, UCLA, and USC along with Arizona, but she had a strong rapport with UA’s coaching staff (both on and off the field), which sealed the deal.
And punched her ticket to university.
“I feel like everyone who plays soccer, you can play anywhere you want as long as you put your head to it,” Enciso said.
“You gotta eat anything out here to survive”
The biggest adjustment to college soccer for freshmen like Enciso is not on-the-field stuff, Amato says, it’s actually .............. their meals.
“They go from mommy or daddy cooking all their meals, providing all their meals to all of a sudden they're in a dorm and they may have not ever made a meal,” he said. “And then it’s like OK I’m going to get a meal plan, but some of the places aren’t open. You gotta go to the grocery store and you can’t eat Chipotle everyday.
“That part is really tricky. And it happens like that,” Amato says as he snaps his fingers.
“I feel like there’s a real lack of preparation there. [They’ve] never made a meal before let alone gone and done the grocery shopping. That stuff is the hardest bit. On-the-field stuff, it’s all really confidence.”
Cavarra, now a sophomore, admitted it’s something she had to get used to when she first got to Arizona.
“My parents were always really good about feeding me dinner after practices and stuff, but then when you come here it’s all on you and you’re always so tired from practice or school that you want to go out,” said the Colorado native.
Enciso, who lives on campus, said it’s “hard to eat in the dorms.”
“Mom’s not making homemade food for you anymore and no one’s just cooking,” she said. “You gotta eat anything out here to survive.”
What classifies as “anything”?
“I’m not even sure if I’m supposed to be saying these things. You’re gonna put me on blast. I like Chick-Fil-A or IQ (Fresh). I eat salads from there and a wrap and that’s it,” Enciso said.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire