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Arizona soccer setting the bar high in 2018

The Wildcats began practice Wednesday, looking to build on a historic 2017 season

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats’ first practice of the 2018 season took place in 90-degree heat and an unfamiliar venue, but it hardly sapped their enthusiasm.

“We were all super excited,” UA defender Morgan McGarry said Wednesday at Kino Sports Complex where the Wildcats are training until Murphey Field is in playable condition.

“The first ball went out there and everyone was like ‘go, go, go!’ We’re all super excited because we’ve been here (in Tucson) since July. ... This is really like the first day of creating our identity as a team. We definitely came out just flying around.”

The Wildcats are not only eager to get their foot on the ball again, but also to build on a wildly successful 2017 campaign, in which they won a program-record seven Pac-12 games and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

“Our goal this season is to not settle or be happy with last season,” said head coach Tony Amato. “Just because we won those games last year doesn’t mean it’s happening this year and we can’t be complacent. ... The message really is to constantly improve.”

The Wildcats’ first opportunity to showcase their improvement isn’t too far out. They host UTEP on Aug. 11.

“That exhibition is a great chance to get out and … face other people, see what they throw at us,” McGarry said.

Since that match is less than two weeks away, the Wildcats have to practice diligently leading up to it, and often even twice a day. They usually do team drills in the morning, then positional workouts in the afternoon.

“We gotta make sure we have at least a core group ready to win that first game,” Amato said.

The majority of that core is already in place, as the Wildcats return six starters from last year’s squad.

They are:

  • all-conference goalkeeper Lainey Burdett
  • all-conference defender Morgan McGarry
  • defenders Samantha Falasco and Sabrina Enciso
  • midfielders Kennedy Kieneker and Kelcey Cavarra

Arizona’s biggest question mark resides in its frontline where it lost 40 percent of its goal-scoring, including second all-time leading scorer Gabi Stoian, who led the team in goals four consecutive years, Cali Crisler, who led UA in assists last season, and forward Charlotte Brascia, who started in every game.

That is a lot of production to replace, but Amato said there’s “an excitement about that.”

“I’ve had players, and you talk specifically about Gabi, who were focal points of attacks of teams before, and people always thought there was going to be a dropoff because so-and-so graduated. And I’ve always found that the team is capable of everyone else going ‘oh, there’s a hole to be filled, we can fill that’ and everyone kind of elevates,” he said.

“And maybe sometimes someone individually fills those shoes, but a lot of times I’ve seen dominant players like that leave a program or a team, and three or four people elevate. And you miss the person, but maybe not the actual production in the long run because you still get to that goal total with everyone chipping in.”

The sophomore quartet of Amanda Porter, Jill Aguilera, Hannah Clifford, and Jada Talley is a solid bet to emerge as Arizona’s top goal-scorers.

Porter was tied for second in scoring last season with three goals, while Aguilera and Clifford each scored twice, and Talley had one goal along with two assists.

Porter and Aguilera are the most experienced of the four, starting in 11 and six games last season, respectively. Aguilera, who missed the 2016 season with a torn ACL, was also second on the team in shots.

“All our forwards — Jill, Jada, Hannah Clifford — they’ve been doing a great job up top,” McGarry said. “Jill and Jada are able to stretch the backline, they have a lot of speed and strength. And then Hannah Clifford is really technical and savvy with the ball at her feet, so they definitely bring different aspects of being able to stretch that backline then come back in between and create chances.”

There’s also freshman Brooke Wilson.

Arizona brought in the No. 13 recruiting class in the country, with Wilson being the headliner. Top Drawer Soccer listed the forward as one of eight “top impact signees.”

Wilson starred for the reputable San Diego Surf and was named to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy’s West Conference Best XI, solidifying her as one of the best players in her age group.

“The biggest thing with Brooke that stood out to us is that she is a grinder,” Amato said. “She’s a forward and some forwards are kinda fancy and she’s someone who will grind. She’ll work hard, she’ll defend, she’ll be scrappy, she’ll get on the end of things. And ultimately that has equaled goals and success for her because she also is talented, can strike a ball, can finish.”

Hallie Pearson is another notable freshman. The defender from Carmel, Indiana has gotten some experience with the U-18 U.S. Women’s National Team, and could replace former starting centerback Brandi Park, who graduated in May.

In all, Arizona added 11 newcomers. McGarry joked about how many new faces there are.

“My class was 10 when I came in and we thought that was big,” she said.

While this group of freshmen is viewed as the best Arizona has ever hauled in, Amato always tempers his expectations for first-year players.

“My first-day impression is that those 11 have talent and can help the team. It’s a matter of where the mentality is as the grind happens,” he said. “Everyone can do it day one. What about day 30, 60, 90 as we go on like that? That’s where I’d be able to tell you more, but my first impression is they’re a talented group.”

But even with a strong group of returners and newcomers, improving on the 2017 season won’t be easy. Because nothing is easy in the Pac-12, where games often come down to one blunder or one moment of brilliance.

“It’s 1-0 or 2-1,” McGarry said. “So it’s that one goal, that one chance where you need that goal to win. And if you don’t (get it), it’s a devastating weekend.”

The Wildcats have been on both sides of the coin the last two years.

In 2016, they went 3-6 in games decided by one goal and missed the NCAA Tournament as a result. In 2017, they were 8-4 in one-goal games, including a 2-1 comeback victory over TCU in the postseason.

“Two years ago, [our mentality] was ‘oh, we’re close, we tried,’” McGarry said. “Last year, it was ‘we’re close. We’re winning this. We’re not giving up.’”

That mindset helped lead to an unforgettable season — Amato said he still receives compliments about it — but the Wildcats hope it’s just the start of something greater.

“Our motto is ‘Building a Legacy,’” Kieneker said. “We don’t want to focus on last year, we want to grow from that.”

Extra kicks

  • Amato isn’t sure when Arizona will start practicing at Mulcahy Stadium again. This is the first time since I’ve been covering the team (2015) that they have trained at Kino.
  • There are no plans to renovate Mulcahy Stadium at this time, though athletic director Dave Heeke said last week that that’s the “next step” in UA’s quest to upgrade its facilities.
  • Entering his sixth season, Amato is just two wins away from becoming Arizona’s winningest coach. Here are his thoughts on that:
  • The soccer team made waves on social media when it introduced its new team poster that recaptured 25 years of Arizona soccer using augmented-reality (you can see it below). Amato is happy how it turned out. “We think it’s a little different. It’s interactive. It turned out great to kind of recap some old footage of the 25-year history,” he said. “There’s background photos on there in the distance of past teams, past coaches. It’s really important to recognize that a lot of people have contributed to getting to where we are as a program today. And it’s not just the ones in the program today. And I think it covers all that. Sometimes the players want to be the focal point on the poster or the seniors, or the leading goal scorer wants to be on there, and so it’s so hard to choose and make everyone happy. So I think this covers a lot of things there. ... Obviously I don’t think any of the new players are of captured in that, but they’ll have their day and their time, but I think that shows some cutting edge stuff that we do here at Arizona.”