Friday’s regular-season finale against Arizona State could be the last game of Kelcey Cavarra‘s career, so she plans to savor every moment.
“My identity is wrapped around the game of soccer, so it’s totally bitter that I have to say goodbye to it at some point,” she said. “I just want to give it all that I can while I can.”
Cavarra doesn’t have any regrets about the way her time at Arizona has unfolded. She has made the most of it.
The senior midfielder has played in every game since she stepped foot on campus in 2016. That is 77 consecutive matches, including 60 starts, and counting.
“Oh my gosh, you’re killing me,” she said when relayed those numbers. “I’m gonna knock on so much wood. I’m actually gonna do it.”
So she did. Cavarra stood up and tapped on a wooden door nearby. But it has taken a lot more than luck to make this streak happen.
Here’s how she’s done it.
Cavarra has played through injuries
Let’s be clear: there have been times when Cavarra could have missed a game.
A couple weeks ago she suffered a neck injury that prevented her from turning her head. That seems minor compared to the other ailments she’s played through.
“My head always hurts. I’ve rolled both ankles. I’ve gotten stepped on. Pretty sure I broke a toe,” Cavarra said casually. “Hips, I hyperextended my knee multiple times.”
But she can manage the pain because she possesses a toughness that was instilled in her at a young age. So it goes when you are the youngest of six children...by six years.
“I credit that to my brother. He beat the crap out of me,” Cavarra said with a chuckle. “We’d be sitting in the living room and he’d say, ‘go get your coat.’ And that meant I was going to be target practice for his BB gun in the backyard. ... So I grew up pretty much having to be tough or else I wasn’t gonna survive. That’s my mentality now.”
As for avoiding major injuries, Cavarra credits UA strength and conditioning coach Jim Krumpos for helping her maintain a high muscle mass but not to the point that it compromises her mobility.
She is convinced her aggression has worked in her favor too.
“You just gotta go strong into tackles,” Cavarra said. “My dad always says be the hammer not the nail, so that’s my philosophy.”
Cavarra has been a consistent contributor
You cannot appear in as many games as Cavarra has without being a good player.
As a defensive midfielder, she may not light up the stat sheet—she has five career goals and three career assists—but she does the dirty work, or “tough stuff” as her team calls it, that every squad needs to be successful.
Cavarra covers ground, makes tackles, wins headers and, if needed, can step up to support the attack.
“Her composure on the ball (is special),” said forward Brooke Wilson. “She’s able to connect really any pass. I think of the assist in the UCLA game to Jada (Talley). Over the top, perfect ball. There was no question if it was going to get there or not.”
Yet, Cavarra’s best attributes might be her intangibles, most notably her work ethic and consistency. They allowed her to earn big minutes as a freshman even though she wasn’t the most polished player at the time.
“She’s just someone who you know what you’re getting day in and day out whether she’s feeling well, not feeling well, whether she’s played well, not played well,” said Arizona coach Tony Amato. “She has a stability about her and you always want that as a coach.”
Cavarra tries to set the standard for her teammates and will call them out if they aren’t living up to it. She has chirped at Wilson for not defending hard enough. She has gotten on forward Jill Aguilera for not being patient with the ball.
It’s nothing personal.
“I definitely tend to get after people but I’ve made it known that it’s because I care and I want to win,” Cavarra said.
Sometimes her criticism can rub teammates the wrong way, but Cavarra is usually able to adapt and find a form of communication that helps her get through to each player.
“The way that she communicates with me now is more in a positive manner,” Wilson explained. “She’ll tell me, ‘OK, do this next time’ versus telling me what I did wrong. And I think that I found that really helpful.”
It’s no coincidence that Cavarra will graduate as one of the winningest players in program history.
“From my standpoint, it’s really important that you have people other than the coaching staff hold the standard high,” Amato said. “And the teams I’ve had in the past in my career that have struggled are the ones where only the coach was holding the standard. And Kelcey is someone who holds the standard. And not everybody loves that. And I think it takes some time for younger players to figure that out, adapt to that, be coachable, figure out that she’s just helping hold the standard high.”
There is a lighter side to Cavarra too. She likes to crack jokes and quote The Office. She impersonates a smoker’s voice so well that it even makes Amato laugh.
And when the team is down, she lifts them up.
“I think she has a lot of heart, a lot of determination,” Aguilera said. “She’s always one to have something to say in our huddle to help pump us up and help us gain more confidence.”
If Cavarra’s streak appears in the record books one day, she knows how she wants her teammates to remember her.
“I just want people, when they see my name, to have a positive memory,” she said.
Cavarra is fueled by family
Ah, yes, the Cavarra name. She wouldn’t be where she is without her family—and we’re not just talking about the trademark toughness her brother ingrained in her.
A Littleton, Colorado native, Cavarra started playing soccer when she was 3. She had no choice. Her three older sisters, who are six, nine, and 12 years older than her, played at the Division I level, so she was always tagging along to games and practices, admiring their every move.
Cavarra was a ball girl at the University of Denver when her sister Lauren played there.
“It’s funny, we had our senior banquet and there’s a bunch of pictures of me kicking the ball around in tiny jean shorts and the old co-ed jerseys that they would give me,” Cavarra said. “But I always loved it.”
Cavarra starred for Real Colorado, one of the best clubs in the country, and led Columbine High School to its first-ever state championship in 2014 before landing at Arizona.
Her sisters, who’ve walked in her shoes, have helped Cavarra handle the ups and downs of her career. After games, they will text her to congratulate her or point out what she did well. Occasionally, they will critique her too.
“Which is fine,” Cavarra said. “They know the game.”
Cavarra’s oldest sister, Brittany, was a midfielder like Kelcey at St. John’s, so her insight is particularly useful.
“She’s always like ‘you gotta take shots,”’ Kelcey said. “She texts me before every game like, ‘I want to see three shots’, so that gets in my head. I’m very used to sitting in, passing balls, connecting passes. Sometimes I look for the shot but I look for the safe pass first, so that’s always kind of in the back of my head that I need to shoot and put the ball on frame.”
Cavarra’s sisters warned her that it would be difficult to crack Arizona’s lineup as a freshman. The college game is a totally different animal than club and high school soccer and it takes time to adjust.
Cavarra understood but used their words as motivation to begin the streak she is on now.
“I’m not going to be that player that goes in and doesn’t play and only gets 10 minutes on the season,” she’d tell herself. “So I didn’t expect (to play as a freshman), but I expected me to work hard to earn it.”
Then there is Cavarra’s father, Nick, who Kelcey said she cannot thank enough. He was her coach until she was 12. They’d spend time before and after practice sharpening her foot skills.
She also credits him for her field vision, high soccer IQ, and pretty much every other aspect of her game.
“He’s really made me the player I am,” she said. “He knows the game and he knows when to be gritty and what to say. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve had, maybe I’m being biased. He coached a lot of kids but he was always a lot tougher on me. And I think that kind of just pushed me to be better because I wanted to make him proud and do him right.”
And really that’s what Cavarra’s 77-game streak is all about: making her family proud.
“I want to make the Cavarra name a good name,” she said. “They’ve already done their part, so I’m just doing mine.”