The morning after a dismaying loss to Albany, Arizona players, coaches and staffers alike congregated in their newly-renovated locker room in McKale Center.
There, head coach Tony Amato delivered what UA assistant Paul Nagy described as a “heart-to-heart” speech.
“It was something that wasn’t just about the team and X’s and O’s and what we needed to do and what happened in the game. It was like, ‘hey, this is where we’re at, this team needs to take a step forward and this is how we can do it’,” Nagy recalled.
One point Amato hammered home is that the loss to Albany, as disappointing as it was, won’t define Arizona’s season. He said every season has its ups and downs and there are still plenty of opportunities ahead for the Wildcats to atone for it.
Occasionally, players chime in during team meetings but they were all ears this time.
“I saw a lot of [returning players] nodding, knowing this stuff happens throughout a year,” Amato said.
Last season’s early loss to Florida Gulf Coast is a prime example. Arizona outshot the Eagles 19-1, but one costly defensive miscue led to an FGCU goal and an improbable 1-0 win over the Wildcats.
Arizona’s loss to Albany on Friday was strikingly similar — it was a 1-0 defeat, despite UA owning a 17-5 shot differential. As such, Amato is hoping it serves as a turning point in the season the same way the FGCU game was last year.
Instead of letting that loss snowball into a lengthy losing streak, Arizona responded with three straight wins and, eventually, a program-record seven conference victories en route to one of the best seasons in program history.
“The new (players) don’t really know, but we went through this last year where we had some struggles,” Amato said. “We lost to Florida Gulf Coast when we felt like we should have won the game and we played well after that, so there’s so much time and we feel good about where we are in terms of knowing that we’ve got to get better and we’ll do that. And I think you’ll see a different team as the season continues to roll on.”
Midfielder Kelcey Cavarra thought Arizona was “complacent” on the ball against Albany, attributing some of that to first-game jitters. Seven freshmen debuted, after all.
Thursday’s match at UC Irvine is UA’s first chance to redeem themselves.
“I think it’s going to show how much character we have coming off a loss,” Cavarra said.
And just how tough they are, too. UC Irvine battled Arizona to a scoreless draw last season in Tucson, making the Wildcats work tirelessly for their scoring chances.
There weren’t many. Arizona only mustered four shots on-goal in 110 minutes, none of which came in the first half.
“It was very physical,” Amato recalled. “The game was a really tight battle without there being a ton of scoring chances until it started to open up late because it went into extra time and gaps started to open up because of people being tired and playing hard.”
Like Arizona, UC Irvine lost their season-opener. The nature of their defeat was much different, though. The Anteaters allowed just nine shots in a 1-0 loss to No. 12 USC and controlled much of the second half, lining a pair of shots off the crossbar.
It was an impressive showing — as was UCI’s record-setting crowd of 1,704, which Arizona will have to deal with Thursday — and it earned the Anteaters a pair of votes in this week’s Coaches Poll.
Plenty familiar with UC Irvine, Amato believes Thursday’s rematch will play out like last season’s draw.
“It was a stalemate and I think both teams look pretty similar to last year,” he said. “We expect a tough match.”
It’s one Arizona probably can’t afford to lose. Their goal is to make the NCAA Tournament and generally that requires a winning record.
UA’s coaching staff insists the loss to Albany doesn’t put any additional pressure on the Wildcats to beat UC Irvine — “there’s always urgency because you only have 20 games,” Nagy said — but an 0-2 start would be difficult to overcome considering how challenging their schedule will be once Pac-12 play begins in September.
So while there’s no such thing as a must-win game in the second week of the season, Thursday’s match sure feels like one.
“I think it’s a really big game,” said UA midfielder Amanda Porter. “It’s that bounce-back game to prove that the Albany game was just a one-off and it’s not who we are as a team and it’s not how we’re going to play this season.”
Reinforcements on the way?
Arizona’s starting 11 will probably look different against UC Irvine.
The Wildcats were without three key starters vs. Albany, as centerback Samantha Falasco, outside back Morgan McGarry and forward Hannah Clifford all sat out with minor injuries.
Amato acknowledged that some of them were healthy enough to play, but the team opted to hold them out with the big picture in mind.
Don’t expect them to be so conservative this time.
“It feels like when it’s this early on, you need to get it right. You don’t want (those injuries) to hinder them all year long, so balancing that is pretty important,” Amato said before Tuesday’s practice.
“It feels like now’s the time to push them forward and see if they have it or not. And if they don’t, then we know exactly where they stand. If they get through two good sessions here, then we would expect them to be a go on Thursday.”
Wanna get away?
This is Arizona’s first road trip of the season and the only time they will go out of state in non-conference play.
For UA’s freshmen, it will be their first away game, but Amato thinks his team is ready for a change of scenery. (It’s hard to disagree. Temperatures are expected to be in the mid-70s at first kick, a nice reprieve from the Tucson heat.)
“I think we’re in a good place because it’s not a long trip. It’s not a five-day trip, so it’s an easier one. It’s probably a really good one to start off with.” he said. “Not in terms of the quality of the opponent — they’re really good — just in terms of it’s a quick one game and then back and it’s not far and I think it comes at a really good time for us.
“We need to get on the road. We’ve been training out here, we played a game on our field, school started. It feels like (a chance to) get away for 48 hours, hone in on how to get the result, play as hard as we can, hopefully get a result and then go from there.”