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Arizona soccer can take next step with win over Penn State in NCAA Tournament

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Brooke Wilson
Photo by Ryan Kelapire

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Northern California is Wildcat country.

When Arizona soccer faces No. 4 seed Penn State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday (4 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Network), it will mark UA’s fifth game—and third road trip—to the Bay Area this season.

The Wildcats visited Santa Clara and San Jose State in September and returned a month later to battle Cal and Stanford.

“We’ll be in a different hotel (this time), but everything else will be the same,” said Arizona coach Tony Amato.

That means breakfast at Bill’s Cafe before Friday’s match—”their fresh-squeezed orange juice is amazing,” said forward Brooke Wilson—and dinner at Tender Greens afterwards.

“That’s a favorite for all of us,” Wilson said. “We love the mashed potatoes.”

Penn State won’t feel so at home. It has not played in the Bay Area since 2017 and has to trek almost 3,000 miles for Friday’s match.

As far as fan support goes, the Nittany Lions only have two Californians on their roster. Arizona has 15.

“We know where to have a good time and get those vibes going,” Wilson said. “I feel like that is a really big advantage.”

Arizona is in a familiar spot in the NCAA Tournament too—in the second round for the third straight year. Prior to this season, the Wildcats had never even made the postseason in three straight seasons.

They are proud of where they stand but want more. They need more. After two straight years of second-round exits, they have to prove they can make it past this point.

Yes, Arizona reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2015, but none of its current players suited up for that team. The Wildcats always talk about wanting to leave a legacy, to make their mark on the program.

Well, here’s their chance.

“It’d be a great achievement for this group to find a way to win Friday and take that next step,” Amato said.

Standing in the way is a Penn State team that, in some ways, embodies what Arizona strives to be. The Nittany Lions (16-6-1) have reached the Elite Eight in four of the last five seasons, including 2015 when they won the national championship.

They enter Friday’s match on a 10-game winning streak that encompasses a Big Ten Tournament title and a 3-1 win over Stony Brook in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Brimming with talent, Penn State landed eight players on the All-Big Ten team and had three names—midfielder Sam Coffey, forward Frankie Tagliaferri, and defender Kaleigh Riehl—on the preseason MAC Hermann watch list, the award given to the nation’s top player.

The Nittany Lions also feature Big Ten Freshman of the Year Ally Schlegel, who leads them in goals (12) and points (30), spearheading an attack that led their conference in scoring.

“They’re a team that has some really dangerous pieces going forward and they get numbers behind the ball and make it hard for you,” Amato said. “They are dangerous going forward, but they build, they connect, and we’ll have to try and find a way to deal with that.”

You could call the Wildcats the underdogs, but Wilson said they don’t feel that way.

Amato compared Penn State’s style to some of the possession-oriented juggernauts in the Pac-12 like Stanford, USC and UCLA. Arizona routed UCLA 3-0 in the regular season, which gives them confidence—and a blueprint—against the Nittany Lions.

“If you took just frame by frame and looked at the video, whenever you would see everyone in the picture of that (UCLA) game, everyone was moving, sprinting, working together, finding players, attacking together, and defending together,” Amato said. “That’s the model. We know what it looks like and we need to do that again.”

Doing it in Palo Alto, their home away from home, would be fitting.

It, after all, is where the Wildcats beat Santa Clara in 2015 to advance to their last Sweet Sixteen.

“Everyone just wants to get on an airplane and head over there,” Wilson said. “Especially after that TCU game, which I feel like was such a high-energy, really good team win. Our defense was clearing the ball off the line, Brynn (Moga) was scoring, it was just awesome. And the vibe after that was really good and that’s carried throughout the week in practice...so we just need to keep carrying that over.”