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Arizona soccer’s latest NCAA Tournament bid is more proof of progress

The Wildcats host TCU on Saturday at 6 p.m.

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

When the Arizona soccer team was training Monday, head coach Tony Amato was pumping confidence into his players and their ability to win games on the road, in freezing cold weather.

“He was talking about how we played at Washington State, and if we can play in that we can play anywhere,” said forward Jada Talley.

The Wildcats were expecting to get sent far, far away for the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Little did they know they will be playing in 70-degree weather.

They’re hosting.

“Everyone is really comfortable playing at home, you don’t have to travel, I feel like it’s a little bit more hectic when you have to deal with school and all that too,” Talley said. “So just being able to play home, I am just so happy because I feel like we deserve it.”

The Wildcats’ locker room erupted in cheers when they learned they are getting another home game. With an RPI of 38, some other factors needed to come into play for them to fall inside the top 32. They believe their wins over UCLA and Washington State put them over the top.

“When I first saw our name up there, it took me back a little bit,” said junior Jill Aguilera.

The locker room exploded again when they found out who they are hosting: TCU.

Yes, the same TCU team the Wildcats beat 4-3 in Tucson earlier in the season. Well, maybe not the same team. That matchup was two months ago.

“Both teams will look pretty different in terms of just where they are in the season, who’s healthy, who’s playing well, where everyone’s at, and so we’ll have to spend some time on that,” Amato said, “and it’s important not to be traveling and figuring all that out.”

Arizona also hosted TCU in the first round in 2017, scoring two late goals to win 2-1. Amato expects another tight, physical game this time around.

TCU is 11-7-3 and advanced to the Big 12 Tournament championship game after going 4-3-2 in league play.

“Well, it’s a good thing for the staff from a scouting report standpoint in terms of we already know who their key players are and how they play and what that looks like, but we’ve won the last two times we’ve played them so we know they’re going to be really hungry,” Amato said. “Making sure our team understands how hard it will be to beat them again is going to be really important.”

This is Arizona’s third straight NCAA Tournament appearance (and its third straight year hosting), the longest streak in program history. It’s also UA’s fifth appearance in the last six seasons.

Now’s a good time to remind you the program made two NCAA tourney appearances from 1994 to 2013.

“Three straight years is really important to us because when we went in 2014, a couple of people said to me, oh, it’s great to have a good season,” said Amato, who took over in 2013. “And some people even said, can you make sure it’s more than one season? Is it just kind of a flash-in-the-pan kind of season? And we went back in ‘15 and made a run, missed in ‘16, and then have gone back in ‘17, ‘18. ‘19, which I think shows the consistency of the program, the stability of the program, how hard our players work, how we keep improving and that getting better means a lot to us. It’s not one-offs every once in a while.”

A couple years ago, before Arizona hosted TCU in the tournament the first time, Amato said he wanted to get the program to a point where the only question on Selection Monday is not if the Wildcats will make the NCAA Tournament, but if they will host the first round.

That exact scenario played out Monday. As one UA player said before the selection show started, “I’m just excited to see where we’ll be playing.”

And even if that had been some place other than Tucson, it still would have signaled progress for the program.

But they sure don’t mind getting another chance to play under the lights at Mulcahy.

“We’ve worked our butt off the last three years and we’ve proven ourselves,” Aguilera said. “There are a lot of people who don’t think that we’re very good, and I think doing this for the third year in a row shows how good we’ve been.”

What do they remember?

Aguilera was one of the heroes in Arizona’s win over TCU in September. She scored two goals in 26 seconds to help the Wildcats take a 4-1 lead that the Frogs wound up cutting to 4-3 in the final 10 minutes.

“The thing I really remember is the free kick that I scored because that was really hyped for me,” she said. “I’ve taken a bunch of free kicks for us this season, and that one went in, so I was really happy about that. And it was a battle all the way to the end. They came out in the last 10 minutes and scored and I think that we need to make sure that we don’t let that happen again. Shut them down and score a lot of goals like we did the first time.”

Talley echoed that sentiment.

“We always get caught up in the back-and-forth games,” she said. “We’ve had a couple of those this year. I think that was one of those, so I just feel like if we shut down their two, three key players, we got it.”

Tony Amato reacts to Arizona Soccer (surprisingly) getting chosen to host TCU in the first round of the NCAA Tournament

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Monday, November 11, 2019

Here’s forward Jill Aguilera on Arizona Soccer’s upcoming NCAA Tournament game against TCU, a team the Wildcats already beat this season

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Monday, November 11, 2019

Arizona Soccer leading scorer Jada Talley reacts to the Wildcats getting to host TCU in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. She did not see it coming.

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Monday, November 11, 2019