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Arizona soccer ‘on a really good track’ as it hosts Cal State Fullerton in non-conference finale

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

The Arizona soccer team is enjoying one of the best stretches in program history as it enters Friday’s non-conference finale against Cal State Fullerton.

The Wildcats (6-1) have won six in a row, their longest winning streak since 2004, and they have a legitimate shot of tying the school’s single-season wins record (15) if they keep it up.

“I think we’re on a really good track. It’s fun to think about that,” said junior midfielder Kelcey Cavarra. “We just have to execute. I know we can. We have the players and the talent and the teamwork, so I think it’s exciting to know the potential we have.”

While it is enticing to look ahead, the Wildcats are sticking with the usual one-game-at-a-time mentality, which is a wise move with Cal State Fullerton (3-3-1) coming to town. The Titans, on a two-game winning streak themselves, have reached the NCAA Tournament four times since 2013 and are the reigning Big West champions.

“If they are anything like UC Irvine or the California teams that we play, they’re going to be good and technical,” Cavarra said. “It’s going to be a good challenge for us.”

Head coach Tony Amato has a good feel for his team at this stage of the season, and he said the next step is to perfect “the little things” as they move closer to Pac-12 play where every game is decided by the smallest of margins.

“We have the staples of attack and defense down and set pieces, but now it’s little execution things, like making sure you don’t give up clear-cut chances because if you do that in the games here that are coming up, including the game tomorrow, you will get scored on,” he said Thursday.

“And attacking-wise, you got to make sure you create enough chances because all the Pac-12 games are 1-nil, 2-1. And so you’re not going create one chance, score one chance and win in the Pac-12. You’ve got to create enough chances to score two and win the game.”

Arizona ranks second in the conference in shots per game (20.3), but fourth in goals per game (2.71). Meanwhile, they have only allowed two goals all season, tied for the best mark in the Pac-12.

“Making sure we’re connecting the ball, our communication is good, executing on set pieces is a real big thing of ours,” said UA forward Jill Aguilera. “Defensively too, making sure our shape is right, passing off attackers to each other, just fine-tuning the little things that will make us really good going into conference play.”

While the Wildcats have won six straight, their NCAA Tournament résumé could use some work. The official RPI numbers have not been released yet, but Amato said the Wildcats fall somewhere between 50 and 60, meaning they would be a bubble team if the season ended today, especially since they have yet to play a ranked team.

Arizona’s RPI is bound to improve once they start facing Pac-12 schools regularly, but a win against CSUF could go a long way toward making the field of 64, just as a loss could keep UA out of the tournament if they wind up struggling in conference play.

“It’s one of those things that if you have a couple big victories, like top-50 results, then you can be around 50 in the RPI (and get in the tournament),” Amato said. “If you don’t, you need to be Top 40.”

Arizona has not played Cal State Fullerton in Amato’s six-year tenure — the last matchup between the schools was in 2006 — but he knows all about them. Everyone in the West does, apparently.

“When they get in the tournament, they usually play Pepperdine or USC, a really good West Coast team, and they give them hell,” Amato said. “So we scheduled them knowing they would help us get ready for Pac-12 play. ... And if we don’t play well, we will not win.”

Welcome back, Maddie

Friday’s match will be a homecoming of sorts for CSUF forward Maddie Bennett. The junior from La Mirada, California spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons with the Wildcats before transferring closer to home.

Bennett scored two goals in 38 games as a reserve at Arizona, but has taken on a larger role with the Titans, starting in all seven games.

“I think she wanted an expanded role and that’s not something we could guarantee moving forward,” Amato said. “She played but she didn’t play 90 minutes, and for Fullerton she pretty much does.”

Bennett is still searching for her first goal of the season, and Amato said it would be “really weird” if she were to get it against Arizona. He couldn’t think of another time he had to coach against one of his former players.

“But I think once you start playing, she’s another player on the other team,” he said. “I’m sure the girls would treat her the same way.”

Aguilera and Bennett, who were part of the same recruiting class, traded texts this week.

“She just wished me good luck and she’s excited to see me,” Aguilera said. “We haven’t talked a whole lot besides that.”

Cavarra, who once roomed with Bennett, hasn’t spoken to her former teammate but admitted it will be interesting to suit up against her.

“We know how she plays. She knows how we play,” Cavarra said. “But at the end of the day we’re more focused on the players that we have right now.”

Wilson out 4-5 weeks

Arizona will be without star freshman Brooke Wilson for 4-5 weeks after she fractured her leg in training.

The forward from Vista, California scored three goals before her injury, third-most on the team. Our story on that and fellow freshman Emily Knous making TopDrawerSoccer’s Team of the Week can be found here.