When Tony Amato arrived in Arizona in 2013, then-athletic director Greg Byrne asked his newest hire a question that now seems silly.
“Do you think we can ever get in the tournament?” said Byrne, now the AD at Alabama.
Amato knew how downtrodden the UA soccer program was, so he wasn’t sure.
“I said I gotta get my hands in here and see, but if we have the right players we will,” he said.
Fast forward to 2018 and the Wildcats not only had their named called on Selection Monday — they face Denver on Friday at 7 p.m. — but they are hosting the first round, a privilege only the top 32 teams in the country get to experience.
It’s no fluke, either.
This is the fourth time in the last five years the Wildcats are postseason-bound and the third time they have hosted, quite the feat considering they only made two NCAA Tournament appearances from 1994-2013.
Safe to say they found the right players.
“I think we’ve come really far,” said Amato, who’s in his sixth year at Arizona. “We weren’t sure the first time if we’d get in and that feeling was super anxious and super exciting and now my nerves were at ease today knowing that we’ve done a lot and should be in. We didn’t know all the details … but I felt pretty comfortable and that’s really different over the years.”
Amato made sure the players know the on-field results are a product of the time and energy they have dedicated to the program.
Then he warned them: don’t take a trip to the postseason for granted.
Arizona’s juniors and seniors nodded. They remember the hollowness they felt when they missed the tournament in 2016.
“You want to get as far as you can and that shows that going into each year anything can happen,” said senior goalkeeper Lainey Burdett. “The tournament is not a (guaranteed) thing every year, so you just want to do the best you can at all times.”
While the freshmen and sophomores haven’t experienced that heartbreak — and Amato hopes they never will — they seem receptive to the message.
“The drive is all there. Everyone wants it,” said UA senior Kennedy Kieneker. “The freshmen are all tapped in and I think that’s rare.”
For Arizona’s seniors, Friday’s game is one last chance to play at Mulcahy Stadium, where the Wildcats are 9-1-2 this year.
Kieneker vividly remembers the raucous standing-room-only crowd Arizona had when it hosted a postseason game last year.
“We’ve only had two days since our last game, but I’m ready to play already,” she said.
Amato doesn’t mind waiting till Friday.
“We didn’t know our opponent until just now, whereas the previous 20 games we’ve known the opponent for the last year,” he said. “So you gotta have a quick turnaround and we’ll dive straight in to scouting Denver, coming up with a plan, and putting it in place immediately and making sure we’re ready for kickoff.”
Still, Arizona (12-5-2) faced Denver (13-5-2) two years ago and the Pioneers played two mutual opponents this year — Colorado and Cal State Fullerton — so Amato knows enough about them to expect a grind-it-out game.
“All those games come down to an even battle,” he said. “Both teams are up for it, both teams are fighting, both teams are really emotionally engaged in the contest and there are going to be a couple key moments and do you capitalize on them?”
Playing in the Pac-12 should only help the Wildcats thrive in those pressure-packed situations.
“You’re playing against top players so it gives you confidence moving forward, knowing that we’ve played against the best of the best and all these teams are the best of the best in their conferences,” Burdett said. “It mentally prepares you and you know what’s to come.”
In the end, Arizona hopes it fares better than it did last year when it lost to Florida State in the second round.
“We have a lot to be proud about, but we have a lot of work to do, too,” said midfielder Kelcey Cavarra.
Which means the program’s standards have heightened considerably. The question is no longer if the Wildcats can make the NCAA Tournament, but how far they can go.
“I was telling the team that there were a lot of doubts five or six years ago when I got here,” Amato said. “Now it feels like we’ve been pretty consistent with it and we’ll do our best to find a way to win Friday and advance and hopefully this becomes a more regular thing every year.”