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Arizona soccer starts spring season, looks to build on strong 2017

The Wildcats just had one of their best seasons in school history, so expectations are high in 2018

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Tony Amato didn’t want the 2017 season to end.

Arizona was playing their best soccer maybe ever, their team was cohesive, and injuries were few and far between.

“We’re in a good place,” the UA head coach said in mid-November, a few days after his team beat TCU in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“And you just don’t know what it’s going to look like after that.”

But it all ended two days later. The Wildcats lost to Florida State in the next round, a crushing 2-0 defeat in Palo Alto.

“Still bitter about it,” said UA defender Morgan McGarry.

The Wildcats finished the year 11-5-4, including a program-record seven wins against Pac-12 foes. It was arguably the best season in school history, so it wasn’t until January when Amato finally moved on from it.

“I just knew they were a really fun group to have, and you (have to) hit the reset button and start all over,” he now says in February. “It definitely takes that whole offseason, but now we’re in the swing of it again and I feel good about it.”

Arizona, sans their departed seniors, returned to the pitch Saturday, kicking off their spring season with a dominant 2-1 win over ASU.

The Wildcats outshot the Sun Devils, 30-3, and held a 2-0 lead until ASU scored late.

“We were just excited to come out and play,” McGarry said. “It was great. Having not played for months and to come out and play ASU, it was even better.”

It’s rare for Arizona to play a Pac-12 school — let alone their in-state rival — during the spring, but NCAA rules prohibit teams from flying to games, so ASU is the best opponent available.

“For us to be able to set this up and get a Pac-12-level game, especially before spring break ... it’s a great measuring stick at this point when you don’t have your seniors,” Amato said. “It definitely gets you some things on film that you focus in on your spring and the scope not be so wide, so I think it’s great for us.”

Arizona has four more spring matches, including games against BYU, GCU, and UTEP.

“It’s the time to really improve individually and figure out where people are going to go in the fall, and how we’re going to score goals, how we’re going to stop goals,” McGarry said.

Like any team, Arizona has some questions to answer before they enter the fall, especially in the attacking third.

The Wildcats graduated four starters from a season ago, three of whom were key cogs in the team’s offense which ranked fifth in the Pac-12 in shots.

That trio is Gabi Stoian, who is second all-time in several offensive categories, Cali Crisler, who was the team’s leading assister in 2017, and Charlotte Brascia, who started in every game and was tied for second in scoring.

That is a lot of production — and experience — to replace. That senior class was the first in program history to reach the NCAA Tournament three times.

In their places Saturday were three soon-to-be-sophomores — Hannah Clifford, Jill Aguilera, and Jada Talley. All were productive.

Clifford scored. Talley had an assist, scored, and took seven shots. Aguilera had a game-high eight shots.

A promising start.

“We saw some attacking pieces, and I think you saw tonight there’s some people that are close to being ready,” Amato said. “...You’ll see them fill into some new roles, and step their game up over the course of the season.”

While young, that sophomore trio played quite a bit in 2017. They all started in at least one game, and scored at least one goal. Aguilera was actually second on the team in shots (28).

“Everyone got a lot of minutes last year that’s still on the team, and we’re confident that we’re going to be able to hit the ground running where we left off last (season),” said McGarry, a Pac-12 All-Second Team defender.

Now a junior, McGarry is set to lead an Arizona backline that will be nearly identical to the one that was one of the best in the Pac-12 a season ago. The only difference is junior Leah Carillo taking over for Brandi Park at one of the center back spots.

Carillo started in two games last season, including the win vs. ASU in the regular season finale as Park nursed an injury. Carillo also served as a fifth defender when UA faced dangerous offensive teams like Stanford and UCLA.

Arizona also returns goalkeeper Lainey Burdett, another Pac-12 All-Second team performer, and two vital midfielders in Kelcey Cavarra and Kennedy Kieneker, both described by Amato as “solid, reliable” players.

So that is a lot of returning talent, but Kieneker and Burdett will be the only seniors on the roster.

“We did lose four starters, so we do have a bunch of roles to fill and we have 11 new players coming in, so it depends how many freshmen are ready to play in terms of how young we’ll be,” Amato said. “But I think the core of the team should be younger, but experienced.”

About those 11 newcomers. Top Drawer Soccer ranked Arizona’s 2018 freshman class just outside the Top 10 nationally. It consists of two goalkeepers, three defenders, two forwards, and four midfielders.

It might be the best class the program has ever brought in.

“If you look at the scope of the five years that we’ve been here, we’ve never made any sort of list like that,” Amato said. “And we’ve still found a way to get good players and win some games. So the fact that we’re in that discussion, we feel good about that group.

“But it is all on paper, so I’m done predicting how well freshmen are going to do, because you just don’t know. But I would be pretty surprised if some of those players didn’t make an impact and help us pretty quickly. ... But we know someone who’s highly-ranked in that class may not be totally ready. And someone who’s not may step up and be more ready than you think.”

The freshmen don’t arrive until the summer. Well, except for Emily Knous, a midfielder from Long Beach, California, who enrolled a semester early and joined the team this spring.

Knous has quickly made an impression on UA coaches and players. Not only did she play 68 minutes in Saturday’s spring opener, she started too, splitting time between two midfield spots.

“I threw her right into the fold,” Amato said. “She just got here a few weeks ago, and I just thought why not get her out there and start the game. Anything that you have to work through as a freshman, let’s just do it this spring and I thought she handled it well.

“She admitted she was a little nervous, but I thought she settled in nicely.”

McGarry said Knous, who has trained and played with the U17 U.S. national team, is going to be a “great addition.”

“She’s transitioned really well,” McGarry said. “The college game compared to our club and high school game is definitely different. Faster pace, the speed of play is a lot different. The first practice she came in and you couldn’t even tell that it was her first practice with us.”

Expectations were low for Arizona in 2017 after they went 9-9-1 and missed the tournament in 2016. So much so that they were picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12.

But they finished fourth, and got to host an NCAA Tournament game for just the second time in school history.

It was a feel-good story. Now it’s the new standard.

“We know that it is expected for us to get to the tournament,” McGarry said. “We want to get there, and we’re not going to stop until we do.”

Spring season continues March 25

Arizona still has four more spring games left. Here is the rest of the schedule:

  • vs. RSL U14 Boys — March 25, 1 p.m. MST, Tucson, AZ
  • vs. BYU — April 7, 1 p.m. MST, Glendale, AZ
  • vs. GCU — April 14, 1 p.m. MST, Tucson, AZ
  • at UTEP — April 21, 1:30 p.m. MST, in El Paso, TX

Admission is free.

How will Arizona soccer use the new indoor facility?

A few weeks ago, Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke announced that the construction of the UA’s new Indoor Sports Center, located on Sancet Stadium adjacent to National Championship Drive, will begin in April 2018 and should be completed in December 2018.

While the Arizona football team is seen as the biggest beneficiary of the new facility, the soccer team will take advantage of it, too.

They won’t have to worry about ripping up the field during Tucson monsoon season anymore.

“We’ll be able to just make a decision if football’s not in there to get in there and use it,” Amato said. “I think that will be helpful. I’m hoping some of the summer workouts that happen in August, even in July with our strength coach, I’m hoping that sometimes it’s not always in the 100-degree heat. But I think football will be in there a lot of the time, and we’ll have to find our moments that we can use it.”

The soccer team is also getting new locker rooms in McKale Center, and Heeke said in a newsletter that he is looking at future projects that would enhance the program.

Amato said he is not aware of any upgrades planned for Mulcahy Stadium, but he would certainly welcome them.

“This is where we are all the time,” he said. “… So if we could continue to grow the program and ... grow this (facility), that would be awesome. That would be my long-term goal.”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire