KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — You can’t discuss Tennessee soccer without Bunny Shaw dominating the conversation. Arizona head coach Tony Amato can attest to that.
The UA coaching staff hit the recruiting trail last weekend, and anytime people heard they were facing Tennessee in the Round of 32, the topic immediately shifted to the Volunteers’ star forward.
“So it doesn’t take rocket science to know you gotta stop her,” said Amato, whose team faces No. 2 seed Tennessee on Friday at 5 p.m. EST. “But I’m sure (Tennessee is) thinking they’ve got a lot of other good players too and everyone only talks about Bunny. So it’s important we are matched up and playing against everyone, but Bunny is the kind of player that can win a game at any point.”
She did it last week, scoring two goals in the final 11 minutes to lift Tennessee to a 2-1 win over Louisville. The 5-foot-11 senior is the total package as far as Amato is concerned.
“Physically, she’s fast, she’s strong, she’s a presence on the field, she can use both feet, but ultimately the hardest thing to do in soccer is score goals and she does that,” he said.
Shaw has notched 13 goals in just 12 games, leading Tennessee to a 14-2-3 record. Their second-leading scorer only has five goals.
“Every game has different points of emphasis for every person, there is no doubt in this game that we are openly talking to the entire team about stopping Bunny,” Amato said. “They all know that’s important. That is not to take away from any other player that could score against us, but she will have a hand in it. You’re gonna have to stop her.”
But how do you even do that?
“You can’t ever tune out,” Amato said. “She can score two goals in three minutes, so you have to see every moment and every second out. Then you need to make sure it’s not just one person (defending). It has to be by committee.”
The Wildcats, who shut out Denver 3-0 to advance to the second round, believe they are up for the task.
“We’ve got a solid backline and then everybody works together,” said freshman Iyana Zimmerman, who made her first career start against DU. “That was one of our focal points, especially (Tuesday in training). So I don’t see that being an issue.”
Arizona (13-5-2) is used to defending elite talent, after all. As a member of the Pac-12, they face gifted scorers like Catarina Macario (Stanford), Leah Pruitt (USC), and Ashley Sanchez (UCLA) on a consistent basis.
All three have logged double-digit goals this season, but Macario was the only one to find the back of the net against Arizona.
“So it’s a matter of building off that experience because those players are hard to stop,” Amato said.
Still, Tennessee is not a one-woman show, despite Shaw being the center of attention. They have a 38-11 goal differential and their roster is littered with all-SEC talent.
Plus, they get to host Arizona at Regal Soccer Stadium, a hostile environment for visiting teams. Tennessee is 16-3-1 at home the past two seasons, using 3,000 orange-clad fans to their advantage. (They have a massive student section called the Regal Rowdies.)
“It’s going to be awesome,” said UA midfielder Kelcey Cavarra, unafraid of the challenge. “I think it’s fun to go some place different, it’s a new experience. But I think we’re just there to play our game and if we play our game we have a really good chance of winning.”
That sort of confidence is oozing throughout the Wildcats’ roster. Arizona made history last season by winning seven conference games, and now UA players believe they have all the ingredients to lead the program to its first-ever Elite Eight.
“I just think a lot of us are willing to go out and risk it all,” Cavarra said. “The talent on this team is really good and I think we can come together as a team and really play well.”
UA forward Jill Aguilera also pointed out that, unlike previous years, Arizona would not have to face Stanford in the Sweet Sixteen should they beat Tennessee. They would play the winner of Texas A&M-TCU on Sunday in Knoxville, instead.
That is monumental, considering the reigning national champs have not lost since October of last season.
“To have the opportunity to skip (Stanford in) the Sweet Sixteen and play them in the Elite Eight, it’ll be a really good opportunity for us,” Aguilera said.
But that is too much forward-thinking for Amato. Shaw and Tennessee are far too good to overlook.
“We gotta win on Friday or it’s the same as last year (a second-round exit),” he said. “For my view, nothing changes. We’re trying to win every game ahead of us, and so the first thing is obviously to win Friday, which would put us one step further than last year. But I’m going into the weekend with a win-the-weekend mentality and if we can win both games that would make history and that’s what our focus is.”
A notebook with lots more coverage about Friday’s game can be found here.