The Arizona Wildcats’ high-press brand of soccer requires a certain class of player to be effective. They have to be fit, tough, and willing and able to cover lots and lots of ground.
“And we find that players either adapt to that and really excel at it, or it doesn’t work,” said UA coach Tony Amato. “So we feel like having the right mentality and having a fit, hard-working player goes a long way for us.”
Junior midfielder Kelcey Cavarra fits that description to a tee, hence why she has been such a critical player for the Wildcats the past three seasons, even though she has only scored three goals.
“She works really hard, she’s committed to winning,” Amato said. “We see that turn up all over the field. Her stats don’t show that, but our stats of watching her, it always shows up.”
Those stats being...
“Heading, tackling, covering ground, breaking up the other team’s attack, and then playing simple once she gets it,” Amato said. “And if you look through that lens, you’ll see how big of a role she has.”
Here’s another lens: the Wildcats have experienced two of the most successful seasons in program history with Cavarra policing the midfield, including this season, as they are set to host Denver in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
It’s the second year in a row UA has hosted a postseason game, but just the third time in school history.
“She does everything for us in the middle,” defender Morgan McGarry said of Cavarra. “She wins the ball in the air and is able to distribute out from there. And you always need one or two strong players — her and (Kennedy Kieneker) do an excellent job together to control the middle of the field — otherwise you can never get control of the ball.
“I definitely think she’s helped us drastically the last couple years and she’s one of the main reasons why we’ve had success. Sometimes a lot of teams, their strongest players are those attacking center midfielders. She’s able to pick them up, help defend them, and then win the ball from there.”
Friday’s first-round match is more personal than most for Cavarra, who attended Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
She was high school and club teammates with Denver starting goalkeeper Brittany Wilson and club teammates with DU starting left back Alex Nillen. Plus, most of Denver’s roster hails from Colorado, likely crossing paths with Cavarra at some point or another.
Also: one of Cavarra’s three sisters, Lauren, played at Denver several years ago under Coach Jeff Hooker, who is still at the helm there.
I caught up with Kelcey to talk about that, her role at Arizona, the NCAA Tournament, and some other things.
So the Denver players you know, do you text them this week or do you not even talk to them?
“I’ve already texted them. I’ve known them for 16 years of my life now. We’ve played against each other in high school, so it’s just another level up.”
What do you say? You can’t say good luck.
“They sent me pictures of our field because they practiced here this morning, and I was just like, ‘oh where are you guys staying? I might come see you guys.’”
Did Denver recruit you?
“Kind of, but not really, because of my sister, so I grew up knowing the coach. He used to coach with my dad, and I always knew I wasn’t going to go to Denver or stay in-state.”
Their coach coached your sister, so how is that family dynamic for your sister then, knowing that you’re playing against her former coach and school?
“She’s nine years older than me, but it’s funny because I was always a ball girl at DU. I’ve probably been in that locker room just as many times as I’ve been in ours. I’ve been around the campus and the girls a ton. I knew the old team. But I don’t think it’s that weird and my sister is definitely rooting for me.”
What are your points of emphasis in training this week?
“Obviously I know Brit and I know she has really big punts and kicks, so that I can plan for because I’ve played against her before. But I think this week we’ve mostly just been focusing on ourselves and our game plan and how we’re gonna win, rather than conforming to theirs.”
So what’s your game plan?
“Just to build off our ASU win. The formation we played against ASU seemed to work, so I think we’re building off that a little more.”
Leading up to these tournament games and knowing your season is on the line, how is it different?
“There’s no room for error. Every touch, every play is crucial. One of our emphasis this year has been taking no time off, like if the ball goes out of bounds, there’s not a lot of time to breathe, which is fun because it keeps us alert.”
How would you describe your role to someone that’s never watched you play?
“I’m not a very showy person. My role is simple, but it’s a lot more complex than an outside person would see. But I just try and work as hard as I can and try and stop the attack, while also playing simple balls that can create success for my teammates ahead of me.”
How do you measure how well you’re playing?
“For me it’s winning balls in the air, 50-50 tackles, and pass completion.”
What’s changed since your freshman year here? You missed the tournament that year, but made it the last two years. Is it just as simple as having better players?
“I think that’s a big part of it, but I think a lot of it is, compared to my freshman year, the team is a lot closer, a lot more connected than we were. It feels more like a team and a family than it did my freshman year, and I think that’s what’s been successful. And I think learning other people’s strategies and having good leadership on the team has really helped.”
What do you like about the coaching staff?
“They’re all very different, they all give different insights. They think about the game differently than any coaches I’ve been with.”
In what ways?
“Growing up in club I played a 4-3-3, it was just that. There weren’t any different shapes or anything. But when I got here, we always practiced different formations because we want to see what will fit best in that game and that opponent, rather than trying to stick with one formation, which I do kind of like.
“And then the pressing aspect. I never grew up pressing. We were always the better team in club, so we didn’t really have to. But coming here and pressing, I think it throws a lot of people off their game and that’s a good staple to have on our team.”
Why do you like that high-pressing style and why do you think it’s been so effective?
“I think it’s super effective. It totally throws opponents off. It’s hard work. If we get caught in transition or if we get caught taking time off, it can be really crappy because it gives the opponent a leg up, but I don’t think other teams have dealt with it that well.”
What is something interesting about you that people don’t know?
“It’s kind of stupid, but I have learned the Napoleon Dynamite dance, so it’s that. ... I am always quoting movies and referencing them.”