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Jill Aguilera’s offseason work paying early dividends for Arizona soccer

Photo via @ArizonaSoccer

Tony Amato was convinced Jill Aguilera was living a double life. She had to be.

It was the only way he could explain how her 2017 season unfolded, the bad luck she experienced.

“I asked some players if Jill is living some secret life we need to know about where the karma is going against her,” the Arizona head coach joked last season.

Aguilera finished the year with 28 shots — the second most on the team — and 15 were on frame. But she only had two goals to show for it. If her shots didn’t miss high or wide, they always seemed to find posts, crossbars and goalkeepers’ gloves.

Like those times against Colorado and UCLA when Aguilera ripped two point-blank shots right into the goalkeeper, missing out on a pair of game-winners.

Some of it was bad luck, but not all.

“She’s fast, powerful, strong, knows where to be, makes good runs, just that final piece is not consistent,” Amato said after last season.

Amato prided himself on goal-scoring when he played at Rollins College — he scored 41 goals in four years — so he took Aguilera under his wing this spring. Previously, she had been working with assistant coach Kate Norton.

“That’s what I hung my hat on as a player,” Amato said. “In a game where I would play terrible, I was still on the field because I could pop up with a goal out of nowhere, so I just felt like I’ll work with Jill.”

Aguilera described the move from Norton to Amato as a “trade”, to which Amato laughed.

“That’s not really what happened,” he said, with a smile. “We’re trying to make sure that all our staff members are giving feedback to all the players and that no one’s slipping through the cracks. And so every so often we rotate who’s heading somebody’s particular plan for their development and that’s all it was.”

So what was the plan for Aguilera?

“She has a nasty left foot and we focused on making sure she got it on her left foot and had a plan in front of the goal,” Amato said. “It was all about that. That’s her strength ... and it’s just a matter of making sure she focuses in on that.”

Aguilera said Amato changed her approach on free kicks, too.

“Specifically just not being afraid to hit it as hard as you can,” she said. “I think that’s really important because he says that no Pac-12 goalkeeper is going to miss a floater. And I agree that hitting it as hard as you can with pace (is best). Don’t be afraid to hit it over. He says he’d rather us hit it over than go right to the goalkeeper where we have no chance.

“So I think him having that goal-scoring background helps a lot with me and the rest of the forwards.”

It hasn’t taken long for Aguilera’s offseason work to pay dividends. She scored the game-winner Thursday in a must-have match against UC Irvine, volleying a flick-on from Kelcey Cavarra past the Anteaters keeper.

And, yes, she did it with her left foot.

“That goal proved that I have been working on it and I improved on it,” Aguilera said.

Aguilera is in better shape this year, too. Last year she was coming off a torn ACL, so it wasn’t until about midway through the year that Amato thought she looked like her old self.

But that injury is long behind her now. She played for FC Tucson this summer, which she said helped her keep her fitness level up throughout the offseason.

“I feel really good,” she said Saturday.

The hope is that all of this culminates into a breakout season for the redshirt sophomore. The Wildcats graduated their entire frontline so somebody has to emerge as their new leading scorer.

Through two games, it’s Aguilera.

“It’s great because you always need to get the first (goal) under your belt. Otherwise you start pressing a little bit and it starts getting in your head,” Amato said. “So for her to score was important for the team obviously because that made the difference in the (UC Irvine) game, and I think it’ll be important for her to get one under her belt and start banging in a few more as the season progresses.”