Only three weeks of conference play have passed, but Arizona has already slogged through the murderer’s row that is No. 1 Stanford, No. 3 USC and No. 8 UCLA.
Predictably, the Wildcats lost to all three teams, because pretty much everyone does.
As a result, however, five of UA’s final six Pac-12 games are against teams in the bottom half of the conference.
But is having those elite teams in the rearview mirror a weight off Arizona’s shoulders, or does it just mean there’s even more pressure to beat the conference’s mortal teams, knowing they have ground to make up?
“Yes and yes,” quipped Arizona coach Tony Amato. “We know when you go into the California school games that it’s a massive, massive challenge that you hope you can get something out of. It then makes all the other games where it’s super, super important to get results there.
“So it’s both of those things you mentioned and that’s the reality of the Pac-12.”
Arizona (8-4-1, 1-3-1 Pac-12) does have one final match against a California school Saturday when they host the Golden Bears. But Cal, while talented, is unlike their Golden State counterparts.
The Bears are usually a perennial Top-25 team, but they have trudged to a 5-7-1 record, including a 1-4 mark in Pac-12 play. They have some bad losses, including those to UC Santa Barbara and lowly Oregon State.
Cal went 13-6-1 last year, but lost six starters and are extremely young this season. 10 of their 11 starters in Sunday’s win at Oregon were underclassmen.
The Bears are 23-4-1 all-time against Arizona, but the Wildcats have won three straight.
“They’ve got good players, I think they have some results just not go their way,” Amato said. “That happens sometimes in a season — you have some tight games where the bounce of the ball one way or another makes a massive difference. I’ve been in those seasons before, but I’m sure they’re optimistic because they have good players and they have good talent … that they can come in and beat us. Hopefully we don’t look at their record or some of their tighter games that they’ve lost.”
Besides, Arizona has their own problems to fix. They were swept by the Los Angeles schools last weekend, getting outscored 4-0.
To stay upbeat, UA defender Morgan McGarry said it’s important to highlight what went well on that road trip instead of dwelling on the shortcomings.
“Where we shined, where we defended well, where we had a fast attack,” she explained. “Lainey (Burdett) had confidence saving that (penalty kick against UCLA) so you try to pick out the good parts and build upon those.”
Amato thought Arizona played well against UCLA in particular, especially in the first half when they outshot the Bruins, 6-5. Two second-half goals buried the Wildcats.
“I would credit our players for working hard, so that’s always a positive,” Amato said. “And anytime you put a game plan in, you want the players to do something with that in a positive way and they did that. It looked how I wanted it to look through 45 minutes. We gave up a goal where we lost our way and went down 1-0, and then the picture changed because we needed it to.”
Despite the losing streak, Arizona is still in good shape to make the NCAA Tournament, ranking 23rd in RPI. So midfielder Emily Knous said they just need to focus on bouncing back against Cal.
“You can’t let (the losses) affect the next game, because then you’ll just get on a downhill spiral,” she said.
Which, at 1-3-1 in Pac-12 play, is something Arizona cannot afford to do. A .500 conference record is usually needed to reach the postseason.
“We’re making sure we have six solid Pac-12 games left and every game we need to make sure we go and get some points,” McGarry said. “We can’t take any game for granted or lightly because we got the ‘elite’ schools (out of the way). Every game we’re preparing like it’s our last game of the season.”
Enciso progressing, could return Saturday
UA defender Sabrina Enciso is getting closer to a return and could play against Cal after missing the last two games with an ankle sprain.
“She is progressing,” Amato said. “(Wednesday), I felt like she could be a miss for Saturday, but (Thursday) when I saw her (practice), the difference ... was pretty big. … She’s getting closer. She looked way more confident.”
Without Enciso, a sophomore who had started every game the past two seasons before getting injured, Arizona had to get creative with their defensive shape in L.A.
“We started with three in the back against USC, five in the back against UCLA and we were mixing it up during the game,” McGarry said. “We tried to block as many shots, put pressure on the forwards.”
Amato thought the backline performed well without Enciso, but he knows how big of an asset the outside back is.
“They were up against a big task, but I thought they answered the bell and did a good job, and if you can combine that with adding Sabs at her best, then it’s a win-win,” he said.
- UA forward Brooke Wilson had a CT scan Thursday and is still hoping to return this season. The freshman broke her leg on Sept. 12 and was given a six-to-eight week timetable for recovery. She scored three goals in seven games, which still is the fourth highest amount on the team.
- Arizona practiced on the turf at Bear Down Field on Friday, presumably because of the rainstorms that hit Tucson on Thursday night. Forecasts call for rain at kickoff Saturday (5:30 p.m.) so that will be something to watch.
- Arizona fell out of TopDrawerSoccer’s Top 25 after losing to the L.A. schools. Baylor, who UA beat 3-1, are No. 21.
- Cal has UA legend Sean Elliott’s daughter, Jordyn, on their roster. She has a goal and an assist in 10 games.
- UA midfielder Amanda Porter is fifth in the Pac-12 in assists (5). Jada Talley is tied for sixth in goals (6).
- Lainey Burdett has the fourth-most saves in the Pac-12 (53). She was one of four UA student-athletes of the month for September.
- Arizona is outscoring teams 10-2 in first halves this season.
- Arizona’s seven top point scorers are all underclassmen. Talley, a sophomore, leads the team in scoring while freshman Emily Knous and redshirt sophomore Jill Aguilera each have four goals this season.