PALO ALTO, Calif. — Jill Aguilera‘s voice quivered as she answered postgame questions.
“We deserve more,” she said, trying to fight back tears.
Arizona soccer put up a valiant effort against Penn State that left them with no regrets, only heartbreak. Frankie Tagliaferri‘s 97th-minute goal lifted the Nittany Lions to a 4-3 overtime win over the Wildcats, ending their season in the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year.
It’s a streak they seemed destined to end. It’s a streak that some will argue they should have ended. Arizona had leads of 2-0 and 3-2.
But Penn State’s Sam Coffey snuck a shot inside the far post to tie the game in the 88th minute and force extra time, where Tagliaferri ran onto a through ball and slotted a left-footed shot to send her team to the Sweet Sixteen.
“Tonight we got eliminated and weren’t on the good side of the result, but we went down fighting,” said Arizona coach Tony Amato. “We went down running hard, sprinting, supporting each other, playing well, and we scored three goals. Overall the message (to the team) was be proud of the performance, and we got to keep getting better if we’re going to march on in the tournament and sometimes soccer comes down to just those key moments. But we’re proud of the team and I think everyone can hold their heads up high.”
The Wildcats finish the season with a 12-6-1 record, the fourth-most wins in program history. 2019 marked the first time they made three straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
Unfortunately, all of them ended the same way.
“We came out on the tough side of it, and we all feel like we deserve more, but I think overall we had a really good season, a really good game,” Aguilera said. “We were all there for each other, we were all in it together, and I think that’s what we’re all about.”
A pair of unlikely heroes gave Arizona a two-goal lead early in the second half when Grace Santos and Iyana Zimmerman scored their first goals of the season in the 38th and 50th minutes, respectively.
Santos collected a cross from Hannah Clifford and fired a shot from the top of the box that was deflected and slowly rolled into the net. Zimmerman looped a cross from the corner of the box over the Penn State keeper.
Arizona had Penn State on its heels in the first half and early parts of the second half, but Amato knew it wouldn’t last.
“They’re a good team and have good players, so we were on the front foot for a long spell there in the first half and the 90 minutes are not going to go that way,” he said. “There’s going to be a swing in momentum at some point and it’s a matter of just being able to manage through that.”
That turning point came in the 59th minute, then the 62nd minute, when the Nittany Lions netted a pair of goals to pull even.
The Wildcats were noticeably dejected, so Amato clapped his hands and offered some encouragement.
“We’ll get it back, we’ll get it back,” he said.
Sure enough, Aguilera rifled a rocket from the left side of the box into the upper corner to put the Wildcats back ahead in the 69th minute.
For good, it seemed.
UA defender Sabrina Enciso blocked a shot along the goal line and goalkeeper Hope Hisey made a couple key saves to stave off some dangerous chances. Then, with only 163 seconds separating Arizona from its first Sweet Sixteen since 2015, Coffey found the equalizer.
And this time, Arizona didn’t have an answer.
“I think that every game we need to look forward and never have any regrets,” Aguilera said. “And I think that we don’t have any regrets after this game tonight.”
Of course, that is easier for Aguilera to say as a redshirt junior. She will have a chance to atone for the loss next season when Arizona will have a talented roster primed for a fourth-straight postseason appearance.
The seniors won’t get that opportunity.
When Tagliaferri’s game-winner laced the back of the net, Penn State players rushed the field and engulfed her in a celebratory mob.
Just a few feet away, a host of Arizona’s upperclassmen were in tears. Some of the younger players walked over to hug and comfort them.
They deserved more.
“That class has just worked so hard,” said Aguilera, who joined the program the same year. “We’ve gone through so many different things, we’ve gone through injuries. Our freshman year, we didn’t even make it to the tournament. Our sophomore year, we went 7-2-2 in the Pac-12. So I think that speaks volumes to who we are and what we can accomplish.”
Tony Amato on @ArizonaSoccer’s 4-3 loss to Penn State: “We want to be a tough out, and if we lose we want to have no regrets. ... Tonight we got eliminated, but we went down fighting.” pic.twitter.com/mctyYRr9Y9— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) November 23, 2019