Sabrina Enciso mashes the refresh button on her web browser every Monday, eager to see where the Arizona Wildcats stand in the latest RPI rankings.
“I think we are like 36th,” the UA defender said after Tuesday’s practice.
She is right, though not exactly pleased with that number.
“I think we’re very underestimated,” she said.
RPI, which ranks teams on their record and strength of schedule, is the most commonly used metric to gauge NCAA Tournament candidacy. Arizona coach Tony Amato says it’s best to be within the Top 40 or else you are at risk of missing the postseason.
The Wildcats are right on the fringe, so Enciso knows how important this weekend is when they host Utah (3-5-1, 0-1) and No. 18 Colorado (9-0-1, 1-0) on Thursday and Sunday, respectively.
“These games mean a lot for our RPI and they mean a lot for our NCAA Tournament (hopes),” she said.
Losing, and perhaps even drawing, to either school could be costly come Selection Monday. Utah’s RPI is 161 and Colorado, despite being one of the few unbeaten teams left in the country, sits at 61 because they had an anemic non-conference schedule.
“It is very important to win these games,” Enciso stressed.
Amato expects Thursday’s match to be decided by one goal, and that is probably a solid prediction. Arizona has won four of their last six against Utah, but all six were one-goal games. Two of them required extra time.
Last year, the Wildcats won 3-2 in Salt Lake City. The year before, they lost 2-1 in Tucson.
Utah has an unimpressive 11-10 goal differential and lost to Oregon in their conference opener, but Amato called them an organized team that boasts two extremely potent players in seniors Hailey Skolmoski and Paola van der Veen.
Both have four goals and an assist this season.
Skolmoski has tallied three goals in two career games against Arizona. She famously notched the game-winner in Tucson in 2016, scoring a diving header late in the second half amid a torrential downpour.
“They have some other dangerous players as well, but you gotta account for those two,” Amato said. “They’ll find ways to get them the ball and we expect a tough game.”
The Wildcats lost 2-0 to No. 1 Stanford in their Pac-12 opener last Friday, but they were major underdogs, so UA midfielder Kelcey Cavarra thinks Thursday will be a good opportunity to see where they actually stack up against the rest of the conference.
“Losing to Stanford sucked,” she said, “but this is the time to turn it around and get the rest of our Pac-12 season going.”
Amato believes his team is in a good place — they have won seven of their last eight and are ranked 23rd in the latest TopDrawerSoccer poll — but he cautioned that all their early success can quickly be undone in conference play.
So while it might be tempting to look ahead to next week’s heavyweight matches at No. 2 USC and No. 13 UCLA, Utah cannot be ignored.
“It’s going to be like any Pac-12 game where it’s going to be a really tight, one-goal game,” Amato said. “All the games are going to go that way in the Pac-12 and we’re focused on that and know that we’re going to have to play well or they’ll come in and beat us.”
The bar has been raised
Want proof that there is a new, elevated standard for Arizona soccer? One reporter referred to the Utah and Colorado games as ones the Wildcats are “supposed to win.”
Amato couldn’t help but smile when he heard that. Remember: before he arrived in 2013, Arizona was arguably the worst program in the Pac-12. They won five conference games from 2009-2012.
They won seven in 2017 alone.
“It’s funny because the reason I kind of laughed when you said ‘supposed to win’ is it sounds like some of the expectations have changed,” Amato said.
“Before it was like, ‘can we win games?’ Now your language is ‘you’re supposed to win those games.’ So from that standpoint, it’s a credit to the players of how well they’ve done over the years to be able to win 6-7 games in the Pac-12. But we know every year is completely different. You can go from winning seven games to winning one very quickly in this league, so we gotta stay on it.”
.@CoachTonyAmato laughed when told @ArizonaSoccer is entering a stretch of Pac-12 games that it’s “supposed to win.”— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) September 26, 2018
“It sounds like some of the expectations have changed. Before it was, ‘can we win games?’...It’s a credit to the players of how well they’ve done over the years.” pic.twitter.com/wRwQ2cj2Gn