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Arizona soccer notebook: On McGarry’s ‘warrior’ mentality, Utah, and those dang penalty kicks

More on the Wildcats before Friday’s critical road game

Morgan McGarry
Photo by Ryan Kelapire

At some point in seemingly every game the past few weeks, Arizona outside back Morgan McGarry has tumbled to the turf with what appeared to be a serious injury.

First, it was a knee sprain that she suffered against UCLA and has lingered ever since. Then McGarry banged up her “arm, shoulder, and elbow” in Sunday’s loss to Washington.

Yet, she has battled through it. Even with her litany of ailments, McGarry is averaging 85 minutes per game in Pac-12 play and is feeling “good” entering Friday’s match at Utah.

Relatively speaking, at least.

“Just a little sore in certain spots,” she said. “But not bad. Not anything that’s detrimental to playing or anything.”

It would take a lot to keep her off the field. A redshirt senior, McGarry knows this final stretch of games could be the last time she ever steps on the pitch.

The offensive-minded back is determined to play every minute like it’s her last and, hopefully, extend her career by leading the Wildcats deep into the NCAA Tournament when all is said and done.

“I’d have to be on crutches (to come out of the game),” she said.

That kind of perseverance is oozing throughout Arizona’s roster. As noted last week, the Wildcats (8-4, 2-3) have not dropped back-to-back games all season, a streak they will work to continue in Salt Lake City.

“When we came in in the summer, everyone was as fit as they possibly could be because they wanted to be better than the person standing in line next to them when they were running,” McGarry said. “So I think we are all super upset after every loss and we never want to have that feeling again after each game and it’s fresh in our minds.”

Of course, it is easier for a team to take on that mentality when its oldest player, McGarry, sometimes referred to as Gram, is setting the tone the way she has.

“Yeah, she’s a warrior, right?” said associate head coach Paul Nagy. “She’s got all kinds of things. She’s got a wedding she’s planning, she’s getting job opportunities here and there, we’re traveling all over the country and she gets beaten up in some cold weather, goes and tackles, has a knee sprain, all those kind of things and keeps fighting through it. That’s what your old leadership should do, right? Your old faithful needs to go out there and grind through it for us.”

Those dang penalty kicks

The Wildcats have a fouling problem. In two of their three Pac-12 losses, penalty kicks and free kicks loomed large.

Take the Colorado game. A free kick from just outside the 18 pulled the Buffaloes even late in the first half and a penalty kick accounted for the golden goal in double overtime.

In the Washington game, a penalty kick leveled the game in the 84th minute and a free kick won it in double OT.

It’s a painful reminder that Pac-12 games are too close to give away goals, though this isn’t a new problem. The Wildcats, who returned all four starters from last season’s backline, had a stretch in 2018 in which they allowed a penalty kick in three straight games.

What’s going on?

“Sometimes we get in those unfortunate circumstances,” McGarry said. “We’re never going to try to foul someone in the box obviously, and so just trying to slide and block every shot that someone takes, we may happen to catch someone’s foot or leg. I mean, we’re giving it our all and that’s all we can ask, but at some points they may call a penalty on us in a certain situation.”

Nagy had a different answer.

“I would probably resort to saying it’s more a mental aspect late in the game,” he said. “It’s in a dire moment and you kind of have some desperate defending at times. So we dive in, you think you have to block, do those kind of things, and it leads to penalty kicks.

“And when you’re tired and exhausted, you’re a step slower than normal. It’s not the same as in the first five minutes of the game when you can actually win that tackle or win the ball there and read it a little bit quicker. So I think it’s for us staying in the moment later in the game and getting on top of that.”

Good luck scoring in Salt Lake City

Avoiding fouls will be especially crucial Friday since Utah generally struggles to score in the run of play. The Utes (6-5-3, 1-2-2) are last in the Pac-12 in goals (12) by a wide margin.

They have remained respectable because they defend well, only allowing 14 goals in 14 games. Even more impressive is that they have only conceded one goal in six home games.

Credit some of that stinginess to senior goalkeeper Carly Nelson, whose 71 saves are the most in the conference. (She also has a really interesting backstory.)

“They basically play four solid backs with a block of five (midfielders) in front of them with their one forward,” McGarry said. “So I think just making sure that we’re creating as many chances as possible, and just going at them for the whole 90 minutes or however long it takes to win the game. I mean, you saw [USC] had to take them into overtime to win the game, so they’re capable of playing against great teams.”

Friday’s match kicks off at 6 p.m. Arizona time on the Pac-12 Networks.

Arizona has won four of its last five against Utah, including last season’s matchup when Jill Aguilera’s “unbelievable” goal propelled the Wildcats to a double overtime win in Tucson: