In Tony Amato’s first five seasons as Arizona soccer’s head coach, never once were the Wildcats’ recruiting classes lauded on a national scale.
That’s hardly impeded their success.
Arizona has reached the NCAA Tournament three times, won four tourney games, and were victors in a program-record seven Pac-12 games this past season.
It’s easily been the best stretch in school history, but Amato is focused on making sure the program’s best days are still ahead.
“I’m under the mentality that, Sweet 16 or 7-2-2 in the Pac-12, we have to be better than that,” he said. “It’s important here that everyone realizes that. We have to keep getting better.”
Arizona’s most recent recruiting efforts suggest that’s feasible. The Wildcats hauled in the No. 13 recruiting class in the country, according to TopDrawerSoccer’s final 2018 rankings.
“We’ve never made any sort of list like that, and we’ve still found a way to get good players and win some games,” Amato said. “So the fact that we’re in that discussion, we feel good about that group.”
The class features 11 prospects: two goalkeepers, three defenders, four midfielders and two forwards. (more can be read about them here.)
One of those forwards, Brooke Wilson, was one of eight recruits on Top Drawer Soccer’s list of “top impact signees.”
In all, it’s the best batch of freshmen Arizona has ever brought in — on paper, at least.
“I’m done predicting how well freshmen are going to do, because you just don’t know,” Amato said in February. “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 Wildcats return seven starters in 2018, needing to replace a centerback and three forwards/attacking-mids.
They went 3-1-1 in the spring without their graduating seniors and highly-touted incoming freshmen, including wins over ASU and BYU.
Arizona’s penultimate spring game was 9-v-9 and played on a condensed field because several Wildcats were sidelined with injuries and illness.
They lost 2-1 to GCU, a team they had outscored 4-0 in the previous two matchups — a teaching moment, to be sure.
“Our program is about winning, and under that umbrella we’re trying to grow and develop and get better and fill roles when you lose players from the fall,” Amato said. “We’re definitely going through that this spring where you have some people out and who’s going to step up? You have seniors graduating and who’s going to step up? And I thought overall we’ve been progressing throughout the spring.
“It’s not always easy to create adversity in the spring. I think some of that has popped up and we’re growing through that. That’s all part of it. What we’ve talked to the team about is no one cares about excuses. In the fall, you’re going to have players get sick, rolled ankles, it’s inevitable that you have knee injuries, concussions. Those sort of things happen in the fall. You still have to find a way to win and I think that will be a good lesson for us moving forward.”
While a new standard has been set for Arizona soccer, Amato doesn’t think there’s any added pressure coming off the successful 2017 season.
“We felt pressure every year,” he explained. “That’s just part of sports and competing. But it is a dynamic that you have to hit the reset button. You look a couple years when went to the Sweet 16 and the following season it was hard for us to get back to that same standard, because we had achieved so much. ... We have to keep getting better, hit the reset button when the season’s over and know that last season is behind us.”
Last season, Arizona was chosen to finish ninth in the Pac-12, but defied expectations and placed fourth.
They won’t be overlooked in 2018.
But don’t tell them.
“I think we’re used to being underdogs and I think we still consider ourselves underdogs no matter what team we play against,” said UA forward Jill Aguilera, the team’s returning leader in shots.
“And I think that’s a good mentality to have, to not underestimate any team that we play. And although we came off a really good season this year, we always see room for improvement and I think that’s what we’re going to work on for the next seasons to come.”
- Jada Talley and Kennedy Kieneker each had a team-high three goals in the spring. Hannah Clifford and Amanda Porter each had one. Kelcey Cavarra knocked in a penalty kick. Talley missed two games because of an illness.
- Talley, Clifford, and Porter are rising sophomores, and will be in the mix to replace departing seniors Gabi Stoian, Charlotte Brascia, and Cali Crisler in the attacking third.
- Brascia signed to play professionally in Sweden. I wrote a feature about that.
- Emily Knous, an early enrollee, had an assist and started in every game in the spring. Here is a good read about her.
- Arizona was the only non-California school to have multiple players in TopDrawerSoccer’s final 2017 Pac-12 Top 20. Goalkeeper Lainey Burdett and defender Morgan McGarry made the cut. Both return in 2018.
- Arizona soccer cumulatively posted a 3.51 GPA in the fall, and had nine players finish with a 4.0. Both figures were the best among all UA teams.
- Stoian won the Ruby Award at Monday’s CATSYS, the prize given to Arizona’s Senior Female Athlete of the Year. She won many other things, and walked out of the event with too many trophies to carry.
- Stoian was also featured in this week’s Wildcat Wednesday for a “moving speech” she gave at a booster event, which detailed the impact the UA has had on her life. The transcription can be found here. She was a two-time captain, and is second all-time on UA’s scoring and assists list.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire