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Arizona soccer: Pre-Tennessee notebook

Some more tidbits about the Arizona soccer team before it faces Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Arizona soccer team is set to face Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday at 5 p.m. MST in Knoxville. You can tune in to the match via WatchESPN.

Our full preview can be read here and below are some additional notes about the team.

Unchartered territory

Getting to Knoxville from Tucson on short notice is not cheap or easy, so the NCAA stepped in and offered the Wildcats a nonstop, chartered flight to accommodate roughly 30 people.

They gladly accepted because the other options were not realistic.

One scenario would have cost $800 per person, sending the Wildcats on commercial flights from Phoenix to Chicago to Nashville, before a three-hour bus ride to Knoxville.

Another option: a chartered flight that could have accommodated Arizona’s entire team and staff, but would have required them to pick up Texas A&M and TCU on their way to Knoxville.

The Wildcats, who left Tucson Wednesday, rarely use chartered flights, but this one is appreciated because it is the eastern-most game they’ve played since 2014 when they faced Florida International and Florida Gulf Coast in the Sunshine State.

Assuming the travel goes smoothly (it did), the hardest part of such a trek is dealing with the time change, per UA head coach Tony Amato.

Knoxville is two hours ahead of Tucson this time of year.

“I don’t plan to say we’re going to do breakfast at 7 a.m., which is 5 a.m. our time,” he said. “(It’s) just making sure we have those details sorted out.”

Wilson returns, hopes to do more

Freshman forward Brooke Wilson played seven minutes in the win over Denver, her first appearance since breaking her leg in early September.

“It was so much fun. I was so excited,” she said. “As soon as (Tony) told me to go get warmed up, I was too excited. I was running around in circles.”

It was never a given that Wilson was going to play. The Wildcats have 28 players on their roster, but only 22 are allowed to dress for postseason games, per NCAA rules. Wilson did not know she was among the 22 until Amato told her a few hours before kickoff.

The suspense was killing her.

“I was ready to throw up,” she said. “I couldn’t even sleep the night before. I was excited, but I wanted to be in that 22 so bad.”

Amato delivered the news casually at the team’s pregame meal, not wanting to create any unnecessary excitement.

It was a simple, “Oh, in case you didn’t know, you’re in the 22,” according to Wilson, who wound up being overly excited anyway.

Wilson subbed in with the game already out of hand, but admitted she was a little hesitant on the field. She only had one week of practice to get back into the swing of things.

“It’s super nerve-wracking obviously just because I don’t want to break my leg again,” she said. “But other than that, it was fine. I got into a couple little tackles.”

Wilson was one of Arizona’s top scorers before she got injured, and she hopes to have a bigger role against Tennessee, though she knows the team’s interest has to come before hers.

“I haven’t been playing for two months whereas they’ve been working hard for two months, working on their dynamic and stuff, so I just need to work my way back in there,” she said.

Amato said Wilson’s role will depend on a lot of factors, like the score and how UA’s other forwards are performing. Her ability to find the back of the net can be of real use.

“She’s the kind of player if we’re down a goal, she can come on and get you a goal,” Amato said.

Freshman’s first start

Freshman forward Iyana Zimmerman made her first career start against Denver, playing 38 minutes in the win.

She sensed the opportunity was coming.

“I had practiced with the starting group for the past two weeks and from there Tony messaged me asking me how I felt, how my nerves were, and if I was ready and confident,” Zimmerman said. “He told me they were looking to start me.”

Amato has been impressed by Zimmerman’s work ethic, and knows she has the athleticism and skill to compete at this level.

Zimmerman said she was a little uneasy at the beginning of the match, but quickly settled in. She wound up drawing the foul that led to Kelcey Cavarra’s penalty kick, which gave UA a 3-0 lead against Denver.

What does it say about Zimmerman that she started in an NCAA Tournament game as a freshman?

“Nothing,” she said. “I feel like everybody no matter what age or what year you are, everyone works hard in their own way so it’s just our own individual accomplishment.”

That doesn’t mean playing in an NCAA Tournament game isn’t special, though.

“We’ve been hearing about this since before we even committed,” said Wilson, with Zimmerman by her side.

The Columbine Kick

When the Wildcats have a free kick within shooting range, Cavarra or Amanda Porter will take it, and one of them usually fakes the kick before the other sends it on frame.

Against Denver, it was Porter who netted a free kick from just outside the 18 after some misdirection by Cavarra.

“They usually just talk it over. They look at where the keeper is, where the wall is and then they decide who’s going to take it. I trust both of them,” Amato said. “We’ve gone through it enough in training where if it looks a certain way, one should shoot it. And if it looks another way, the other one should shoot it. They sorted it out.”

What was the thought process behind this specific kick, though?

“It was on the right side,” Cavarra said, “and Amanda is left-footed, so it...

“was easier for me to curl it,” Porter added.

“The only thing I said to (Amanda) since we knew the keeper (from high school), I was like ‘hit the post and hit it as hard as you can,’” Cavarra said. “(Amanda) goes OK and then she did it.”

Porter: “Sometimes I look to see how far over the keeper is and then go from there.”

Cavarra: “If there’s any gaps (in the wall), I know we have both looked to slip a ball in, but sometimes there’s not, so hitting it on frame is the best bet.”

There is no name for that play — my suggestion is the Columbine Kick since Cavarra and Porter were teammates at Columbine High School — but Amato offered one when asked about it: the “two-knucklehead” kick.

“I’m fine with it,” Cavarra laughed.

Pac-12 or SEC?

The Pac-12 and SEC are two of the best soccer conferences in the country, but Cavarra doesn’t think they are that comparable.

“I think the Pac-12 is just so much better, our results have been so much better,” she said. “Every game in the Pac-12 is like playing a national champion. I don’t think the SEC gets to do that very often.”

Amato thinks the overall depth of the conferences are similar, but noted how the Pac-12’s elite teams — Stanford, USC and UCLA — cannot be matched. Stanford and USC won the title the last two years, after all.

“I think we have an advantage playing in the Pac-12,” said UA forward Jill Aguilera. “Last year’s national championship was between two Pac-12 teams (Stanford and UCLA) and I think we have an upper hand (against Tennessee) playing those nationally-ranked teams all the time.”

Wilson thinks SEC soccer is more physical, but less aesthetically pleasing.

“The Pac-12 is more ‘get the ball down and play pretty soccer,”’ she said. “And scoring bangers.”

Burdett’s last go-around

Senior goalkeeper Lainey Burdett is going to have to make some big saves for Arizona to beat Tennessee, whose offense averages nearly 20 shots per game and boasts one of the game’s top players in Bunny Shaw.

“She’s a veteran, she knows,” Amato said. “I have no problem even saying to the whole team that we’re not going to limit Tennessee to no shots. Lainey is going to have to make a save or two and they may get a chance where they should have scored but hit the post or missed. That stuff has to happen for you to win soccer games at this level, so I have no problem with that.”

That is a lot of pressure on Burdett, but UA’s all-time shutouts leader has proven she can handle it. She is a four-year starter, so this will be her seventh time appearing in an NCAA Tournament game.

The Wildcats are 4-2 in the postseason with Burdett in net.

“If you had a younger (goalkeeper) — like a freshman that’s good — there’s always a learning curve there, but Lainey has been through all of that,” Amato said.

Burdett was named to the Pac-12 All-Third Team, only behind USC’s Kaylie Collins and Stanford’s Alison Jahansouz.