Arizona soccer opened its season a little over two months ago, but Tony Amato is left wondering where all the time has gone as his team gets ready to enter its final stretch of games.
“The season is crazy,” he said Wednesday. “It feels like we just started at Kino not too long ago, and then all of a sudden it’s senior weekend. It does fly by.”
But there’s no time to reminisce.
The Wildcats will host Washington and No. 13 Washington State this weekend to wrap up their home schedule, two games that could make or break their NCAA Tournament aspirations.
“They’re everything, especially going off this losing streak,” said senior midfielder Kennedy Kieneker. “I think if we start winning, we’ll gain confidence and start to play better.”
The Wildcats (8-4-2, 1-3-2) are winless in their last four games and coming off a 3-3 draw to Cal, a disappointing result since they outshot the Bears, 31-7.
“We’re in a good place,” Amato insisted. “We felt like we played well enough to win the game. You’re not going to always get the three points, even though you feel like you played well enough to. The team is confident, the team is working hard. But it will be important to play well (Thursday) and get a good result, get a win and then march forward from there.”
While wins have eluded the Wildcats lately, they remain in the low 20s in RPI, thanks to some quality non-conference wins (Baylor, Boise State, UC Irvine) and a difficult strength of schedule.
Four of UA’s six Pac-12 games have been against No. 1 Stanford, No. 3 USC, No. 8 UCLA and No. 15 Colorado.
Naturally, that means Arizona’s final five Pac-12 games are lighter, though that is a relative term given the overall strength of the conference.
“We haven’t been on a good streak, but we’ve been playing some highly-ranked teams, so that’s not the end of the world, but I want to get five wins,” Kieneker said.
Washington enters Thursday’s match at 7-6-1 overall and 2-4 in the Pac-12. Arizona has split the last four matches against the Huskies, the last three being decided by one goal.
The Wildcats scored two late goals against UW to escape with a 2-1 victory last season, and Amato expects the rematch to be just as close.
“It will be a one-goal type of game that if you find a way to play well on the day and put the ball in the back of the net, you’ll win. And if you don’t, you won’t get the result you’re looking for,” he said.
Scoring has been an issue for the Wildcats in conference play. They own a -5 goal differential, being shut out three times.
However, they believe much of that can be attributed to the elite teams they’ve played.
“I think a big thing we focused on when we played against those California teams is our defensive shape and stuff, so I think we really need to work on our attack because we’re going to have the ball more in these games,” Kieneker said.
“But you can’t lose that defensive side,” Amato warned. “If you can combine how you defended in those games with what your attack should look like, you can be pretty dangerous on the day and that’s what we’re looking to do.”
Like Amato, Kieneker cannot believe her final season as a Wildcat is nearing its end.
“I’m sure everyone says this, but I feel like I was just a freshman,” she said.
Kieneker is one of four seniors on Arizona’s roster. Her class has helped guide the program to new heights the last four years.
In 2015, Arizona reached the Sweet Sixteen for just the second time in program history. In 2017, they won seven Pac-12 games, setting a school record.
UA’s seniors can also become the second class in program history to make three NCAA Tournament appearances.
“What just jumps out is consistency,” Amato said. “You look at what that group has done over four years … I know exactly what I’m getting from those individuals every training sessions and every game. … That is really important as a coach. The worst thing is when you don’t know what a player is going to do on that day. Maybe they’ll play well, maybe they won’t play well. Maybe we’ll win, maybe we won’t. That is not what this group is and those four are the epitome of that.”
Kieneker has started nearly every game the past four years, covering ground, winning balls and connecting passes in the midfield. Take her off the pitch and Arizona is a completely different team, Amato says.
“When she got here, we had flip-throws and a lot of athleticism, so we were utilizing that and she fit right into that. And then as we have evolved, she’s evolved with that,” he said. “That’s what we ask our players to do. We play different formations, different styles. Every team is different and she has been consistent. That’s why we haven’t had anyone else in there but her.”
Goalkeeper Lainey Burdett, another four-year starter, has been a steady hand in net.
Known for her vocality and penchant for making the big save, Burdett broke UA’s all-time shutouts record earlier in the season and has a legitimate chance to become the first Wildcat drafted into the NWSL.
“In recruiting you always think about what you have to have to be successful and it usually is a goalkeeper and a goal scorer,” Amato said. “Not to say the other spots aren’t important, but if you don’t have those two things, you can have all the other pieces and wonder why you’re not getting the results.
“Lainey is a key piece in that. Through the years, we’ve felt like we’ve had a legitimate top goalkeeper, one of the best out there, and you’ve seen in her play that she’s been that. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been really successful and I think she’ll go on to play and be a part of the game for a long time. You can’t do that if you’re not good.”
Reserve midfielder Hailey Mazzola’s playing time is intermittent, but her enthusiasm is not. When Arizona’s locker room needs a jolt, she is always there to deliver it.
Her pregame dance moves — her go-to song is Believe by Cher — are supposedly a sight to behold.
“Her energy is unbelievable,” Amato said. “She is someone we look to to be a loud voice in the locker room, her role has been to energize the locker room, energize the ride over to the locker room, energize on the field and her specific role on the field has been to fly around, buzz around, make sure you’re super active.
“You wouldn’t do that if that person wasn’t already ingrained to have that quality. That’s who she is.”
Taryn Siegele is a backup forward who joined the Wildcats last season in admirable fashion. She tried out for the team two years ago, but didn’t make the cut, being offered a spot as a manager instead.
She declined and persisted, trying out again the next year, that time earning a place on the roster.
The story doesn’t end there.
In September, she scored her first career goal, heading in a free kick in a big 2-0 win against Boise State.
“There’s no words to describe it,” Siegele said at the time. “And having my teammates support me and hug me, and even on the bench (they were) all screaming my name. It shows you how close our team is.”
The seniors, in particular. The class originally consisted of about a dozen players before it gradually devolved into the quartet it is now.
Kieneker, Burdett and Mazzola — the three that have been together since Day 1 — have formed an inseparable bond as a result.
“Lainey and Hailey are my best friends by far,” Kieneker said. “We literally spend like every waking moment together.”
And they hope to create a few more lasting memories before their careers come to a close.
“I feel like we’re leaving it all out there,” Kieneker said. “It’s our last run, so why not?”