While the Pac-12 has lost its luster in basketball and football in recent years, it remains the crown jewel of women’s soccer, producing the sport’s champion in each of the past two seasons.
Conference play is starting up this week, so I asked several Arizona players and coaches to outline what makes the Pac-12 so unique.
Here’s what they had to say.
The elite teams
UA midfielder Kelcey Cavarra said playing against national champions “like every week” is what makes Pac-12 soccer special.
Is that an exaggeration? Only slightly.
As mentioned earlier, the last two national champions have come from the Pac-12. Stanford won the title in 2017 — beating UCLA, no less — and USC won it in 2016.
Those teams are always at the top of the polls. Stanford is currently ranked No. 1, USC is No. 4, and UCLA is No. 5. While the ACC does have four teams in the Top 10, it only has one team in the Top 5. So it is a great conference in its own right, but it can’t quite match the Pac-12’s elite.
“I think the Pac-12, for a lot of people, those are the games that you want to watch even though ESPN is on the East Coast and you don’t see a lot of Pac-12 games,” said UA forward Jill Aguilera. “We don’t get as much recognition as I feel like we should, because in the previous years we’ve had so many national championships regardless if it was soccer or not.”
There are no average teams in the Pac-12, either. Well, except for Oregon State, who are 1-7 this year. Even still, the Pac-12 boasts the highest winning percentage in the country, which speaks volumes about the depth of the conference.
Non-Conference Win % After Sunday:— Chris Henderson (@chris_awk) September 17, 2018
.734 - Pac-12
.726 - SEC
.720 - ACC
.690 - Big 12
.667 - Big Ten
.567 - AAC
.552 - Big East
.535 - WCC
Best of the rest, the Ivy League at .551.
“I think a lot of times you look at conferences and you can paint it with a broad brush of ‘that league plays this way. It’s really athletic’ or ‘they play great soccer’ and when you look throughout the Pac-12, there are an abundance of athletes and they play really good soccer, and the combination of the two make it pretty special,” said UA head coach Tony Amato.
Seven Pac-12 teams reached in the NCAA Tournament last year and six are currently ranked in TopDrawerSoccer’s Top 25. Arizona, which opens Pac-12 play Friday at Stanford, checks in at No. 19.
“Top to bottom, there is no day off,” said UA assistant Paul Nagy. “You can lose almost every single game. If you don’t have your best, and you don’t have a good game plan, and you don’t train well, and you’re not focused, you can lose to anybody.”
“If you look at the top rankings, the RPI, the TopDrawerSoccer (poll), anything, almost every single Pac-12 team is in it,” added UA midfielder Emily Knous. “You never have an easy game.”
“There’s no bad team. It’s always high, you’re always fighting,” said UA forward Brynn Moga.
Of course, you can’t have elite teams without elite players. The Pac-12 has plenty of those.
“Everybody in this league is just so good individually,” said UA defender Samantha Falasco.
“The speed,” Moga said when asked what separates Pac-12 players from those in other conferences.
The Pac-12 is almost like a farm system for the U.S. Women’s National Team. Six of the 20 players on the national team attended a Pac-12 school. One of them — UCLA’s Hallie Mace — is actually still in school.
A few other current Pac-12 players have been called up in the last 12 months too, and the U-23 and U-20 squads are chock full of players from all around the conference.
And here is how ridiculous Stanford is: After going through their 28-person roster, I could only find one player that does not have some form of international experience — hence why they are unbeaten in their last 30 games.
“There’s a lot of players in the Pac-12 that are on full national teams, and going out and facing them in Pac-12 play it’s definitely exciting,” said UA defender Morgan McGarry, who was an all-conference player last year. “Andi Sullivan from last year, she was a great player. There’s just a bunch throughout. UCLA has a few with Ashley Sanchez and Hallie Mace, so it’s always a tough matchup with them.”
“But it’s pretty special when you go through it and you see week in and week out that you’ve got 10 games against the best players in the country,” Nagy added. “From Stanford’s national team players to UCLA’s national team players to even the other schools (who have) elite players in the country. It’s hard, it’s stressful, but it’s fun.”
“I think the amount of talent along with the hard work ... that’s what pretty much sets us apart from everybody.” said UA forward Brooke Wilson, who has trained in USWNT camps. “Every single team will grind, will work hard. That’s the biggest difference, I think.”
Former UA forward Charlotte Brascia said she was “in shock” in her first Pac-12 game.
“People always said, ‘it’s so different, it’s so different’ but just how fast we play, how aggressive, how physical everyone is, it’s a completely different game,” she said.
The diverse settings
As if the Pac-12 wasn’t already difficult enough, its teams have to endure every climate imaginable if they want to be successful.
There’s the 100-degree heat in Arizona, the freezing rain in the Pacific Northwest, the snow in Utah and the mile-high altitude in Colorado.
And while the weather in Southern California might not be so harsh, UCLA drew over 11,000 fans to one of its matches last season, making it a hostile place for visiting teams.
“You have to adapt to the environments that you’re playing in,” former UA midfielder Cali Crisler said last year, “and some schools are going to have crazy fans and crowds and I think it’s a cool experience to be able to travel to those schools and see the different environments.”
“We’re so used to Tucson and then we go to Tempe and it’s a test of how acclimated we are to the heat,” Aguilera said. “And then we go to, say, Oregon where it’s freezing where our warmup has to be a little longer. We can move the ball, but we’re not getting as tired with our breathing or heat-wise, so I think we appreciate the different kinds of weather that we get to play in.”
Everyone seems to know everyone in the Pac-12. Most of its players hail from the West Coast, so they have been competing with, or against, each other long before their college days began.
Cavarra and UA midfielder Amanda Porter were teammates with Colorado’s Tatum Barton — the Pac-12’s leading scorer — at Columbine High School, for instance. Wilson and Stanford star forward Catarina Macario both played for San Diego Surf. Nine Pac-12 players, including three Wildcats, were on the same SoCal Blues team.
It goes on and on.
“I know two to three people on every team, so that’s probably the most fun part,” said Knous, a Long Beach native who played for Legends FC. “We were all together at one point, we all went our separate ways, but now we all play each other anyway. ... It’s kind of crazy because you know people on a first-name basis on other teams because we all know them from being in the soccer world.”
And when you beat them?
“That makes it a lot more fun,” Crisler said last year.
But what is it about West Coast players that makes them better than their peers?
“It’s an abundance of talent and when you have that in a centralized area like Southern California or California as a whole, or broaden out to even the West Coast, there’s a lot of good players who then compete and play at a high level week in and week out,” said Amato, who’s also coached in Texas and Florida.
“You have good weather, good athletes and then they’re competing every week with good coaches. And if you don’t elevate your game, then it doesn’t go well for you in the club season. So I think that level of competition in somewhat of a centralized area causes great competition, and good players get better in that environment.”