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Freshman Hallie Pearson hopes to shore up Arizona’s backline in 2018 and beyond

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Hallie Pearson is an Arizona Wildcat, in part, because she was in the right place at the right time.

In December 2015, the Carmel, Indiana native was playing in a national showcase in Sanford, Florida when Arizona’s coaching staff just so happened to be there watching a different recruit.

She had no trouble grabbing their attention.

“It’s just one of those weird recruiting things,” said UA head coach Tony Amato. “(Assistant) Paul (Nagy) recognized that Hal was a centerback that fit the qualities that can play in the Pac-12, and because she’s from Indiana, it seemed like, ‘well that’s not really in our recruiting footprint,’ but we decided to reach out to her coach anyway and just see if she would be interested.

“And, ironically, she had some West Coast ties and some family out in this way, and her parents want to get out this way, and so it just worked out and we’re happy it did.”

That’s because, just like that fateful day in Central Florida, Pearson has quickly made her presence felt at Arizona. The freshman started at centerback in Saturday’s exhibition vs. UTEP, playing a team-high 82 minutes in a 5-0 victory. The Wildcats only allowed four shots.

“You’ve got to be a good player to step in at the college level and play centerback in the first week and she looked good,” Amato said. “And she’s a tough critic of herself, so I think she thinks she could do better. But for her first performance she did a really good job and we’ll keep moving forward with that and expect her to be really good for us in that role this year.”

Teammates say Pearson’s confidence is her best attribute — “she’s very vocal out there and helps me lead the backline,” said three-year starter Samantha Falasco — but she never expected to be a day-one starter.

“Because I was planning to have to work really hard,” Pearson said. “And I am, but it’s crazy, it’s just not something I ever thought would be possible.”

Amato did. Early in the summer, when the team’s first practice was still months away, he mentioned Pearson as a possible replacement for departed centerback Brandi Park.

He knew Pearson’s history. She was a high school All-American, a two-time all-state player, and recently trained with the Under-18 U.S. Women’s National Team — something few UA players have done.

“It really gives you a test against the best players in the country and builds your confidence that you can play at a high level,” Amato said of Pearson’s time with the USWNT. “Getting that experience under your belt and knowing that you’re among some of the best in the country, that can go a long way.

“There’s good coaches at that level, good players at that level, and you can take something out of those camps that you can add to your game and get better moving forward.”

Pearson is winner, too. She went 84-6-4 at Brebeuf Jesuit Prep as part of the winningest class in school history. She won a state title as a sophomore, and Brebeuf Jesuit was ranked No. 1 in the country that year.

“I think she defends well and she’s athletic so that obviously is really important to playing in the Pac-12,” Amato said. “But then she’s good with the ball and can help start attacks and is competent ... so there’s a lot of things there in terms of her pedigree that we knew she’d be a good player for us.”

Still, Pearson had to earn Amato’s trust before being thrust into the starting lineup as a true freshman. First, she upped her fitness level, then she excelled in preseason training.

“He’s like, ‘you gotta get to this certain score’ and I did,” Pearson said. “And so that was me proving that I want to be out there, I want to be playing. And then from there it’s been all about soccer, and everyday I got to show that I’m good enough to be out there.”

Amato agreed, saying Pearson has “definitely met the challenge.”

“Most incoming players think they’re fit and you get here and it’s a different level of fitness and we play at a high tempo, high pace,” he said. “You have to be fit to play at this level and I think she just needed a little nudge. She was fit, but we thought she could be fitter.”

Pearson’s next challenge is proving she deserves to stay in the starting 11. The Wildcats’ backline has been one of the weaker parts of the team in recent years, but it should be improved this season as it returns three starters and has some quality depth to boot.

So Pearson, the lone newcomer, knows she can lose her starting spot just as easily as she earned it.

“Everyone expects you to be good all the time and that’s the hardest part (of college soccer),” she said. “There’s no slacking whatsoever.”

While Pearson is on track to help the Wildcats in 2018, she also represents something bigger: Proof that Arizona can remain a force in the Pac-12 for years to come.

Once a bottom-tier program, the UA is currently enjoying its most successful stretch in program history, making the NCAA Tournament three times in the last four years. But that’s still not good enough for Amato, who believes the Wildcats should be in the NCAA Tournament every year.

It remains to be seen if they can reach that level of consistency, but adding a historic freshman class — it ranked 13th in the country — to a talented roster that only starts two seniors certainly puts them on the right path.

“I think we have a really strong backline. I think we’re going to all mesh together really well and do some great things,” Pearson said. “I think they all have a great relationship and I hope to just add to that.”