This is why Ava McCray transferred to Arizona. To be part of games like these.
The former Cal Poly Mustang will play in her first NCAA Tournament game Saturday when the Arizona Wildcats host TCU in the first round.
“I’m nervous, but very excited,” she said.
It’s a bit comforting for McCray that UA will be facing a team it has already played, and beaten, on its home field this season. But not too comforting.
“It’s gonna be a tough game,” she said. “The first TCU game was pretty tough. And I know they have a couple of their players back. But overall I’m very excited.”
McCray should have a bigger role in the rematch. The sophomore is coming off two consecutive starts for the first time in her UA career. She played the full 90 against Stanford a couple weeks ago and most recently started at center back against Arizona State, playing 65 minutes in the 1-0 win.
“Ava is really tough, really good in the air, reads the game well, steps and clears balls and has really done a good job this year,” said Arizona coach Tony Amato.
McCray has spent time on other parts of the pitch too. She scored her first career goal on Oct. 13 at Washington, knocking in a free kick by Jill Aguilera.
No matter where she plays, her instructions are simple.
“Just to be aggressive and do what I do best—win balls in the air, be aggressive and help defend when I can,” McCray said.
There’s no secret what her best skill is.
“If you’re going against her in the air, you’re not winning the ball,” said forward Jada Talley. “That’s hers.”
While an intimidating force on the field, McCray is a different character away from it.
“She’s funny, goofy, dancy, makes TikToks, that kind of girl,” Talley said.
“Ava is like the best person,” added midfielder Iliana Hocking. “She’s just so aggressive on the field and always winning headers. As a defender, she just knows when to step and that’s really good. So she just has good defensive reactions. And then off the field she’s like the nicest person ever, always has the biggest smile on her face and she just really lights up the room.”
McCray has gotten better and better as the year has gone on. She is now accustomed to the speed and skill of the Pac-12, what she says are the biggest differences from the Big West, where she was a member of the All-Freshman team last season.
Mostly a reserve at Arizona so far, McCray hopes to be a mainstay along the backline next season when Arizona has to replace senior center back Samantha Falasco.
“That’s my main role and I’ve played that all my life,” McCray said. “So hopefully I can fit into that for them.”
Cal Poly transfer @avamccray09 has started the last two games for @ArizonaSoccer, solidifying their backline.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) November 14, 2019
She talks about getting to play in her first NCAA Tournament, her role, and what it was like to score her first goal pic.twitter.com/WOVIy1YsIo
Talley ‘shocked’ to earn first-team honors
On Wednesday, Talley became the first Wildcat since 2015 to be named to the Pac-12 All-First Team. It “shocked” her even though she has 10 goals and eight assists this year, the fifth-most points in the conference.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily politics, but I just feel like it’s kind usual for the USC, UCLA, Stanford (players) to be on the list more,” she said.
Talley called her dad, Errol, once she received the news.
“It was just a cool moment, a cool feeling,” Talley said. “He’s just super proud of me.”
The speedy forward had seven goals as a sophomore last season but only one assist. She credits her improved confidence on the ball for the uptick in production. Hocking, her former club teammate, sees it a little bit differently.
“This year, something really noticeable is how well she’s distributing,” Hocking said. “I think it’s good she’s dishing out the ball really well, not being selfish, but also being selfish at the right times and it’s helped our team a lot in these like critical games and getting wins.”
While Talley is the first Wildcat to have double-digit goals since Gabi Stoian in 2014, Amato joked that she hasn’t done anything yet.
“I don’t think she’s scored a postseason goal, right?” he said. “So we got to make sure we do that. But yeah, we’re proud of her.”
What’s different about TCU?
Arizona beat TCU 4-3 in September, but things will be different on both sides Saturday.
For one, TCU will have 11 players on the field. In the first matchup, they were shown a red card late in the second half that led to a penalty kick that gave Arizona a 2-1 lead. Jill Aguilera then scored twice against the short-handed Frogs.
“That was kind of a wild game that night,” Amato said.
TCU is healthier too. When Arizona first played them, they moved two of their attacking players—Yazmeen Ryan and Messiah Bright—to the back because of injuries.
Ryan moved up late in the match when TCU was trailing by three and scored two late goals to make things interesting.
“They’re a handful,” Amato said. “When they were in the back, they were hard to get by, when they were up front, they were hard to stop. So I don’t know what Eric (Bell)’s approach is going to be with them. They are two really good players that obviously are versatile, can play in multiple spots. So we’ll be ready if they’re in the back, in midfield, up front. It’s not going to be a secret if they move around.”
My full preview of the TCU game, and its significance for the program, can be found here.
Better at night
UA players are excited Saturday’s match is at 6 p.m. They noted they tend to play better under the lights. The numbers bear that out. Arizona is 5-1 at Mulcahy Stadium at night, including a historic win over UCLA, and 2-1 during the day.
The atmosphere at night games tends to be more lively, which helps. But that discrepancy can also be explained by the fact that night games are usually the first of a two-game weekend series, meaning there is a lot more anticipation leading up to them.
“Sometimes you’re more amped up for it,” Hocking said. “I don’t think anyone intentionally tries to do that, just sometimes it happens.”
Penn State survives scare vs. Stony Brook
If Arizona beats TCU, it will face No. 4 seed Penn State next weekend, likely in Palo Alto assuming No. 1 seed Stanford avoids an upset. (They will.)
For a while there, the Nittany Lions were flirting with elimination. Stony Brook scored midway through the first half and maintained a 1-0 lead until early in the second half.
Then Penn State scored in the 49th, 50th, and 62nd minutes to cruise to a 3-1 home win.
The Nittany Lions are 16-6-2 this season and went 8-3 in the Big Ten, not including the trio of wins they picked up on their way to capturing the Big Ten Tournament championship.