Washington State made a magical run into the College Cup this fall and, by doing so, shattered a glass ceiling for a host of Pac-12 teams, including the Arizona Wildcats.
The Cougars became the first non-California Pac-12 school—i.e. not Stanford, UCLA, USC or Cal—to reach the Final Four and the second to reach the Elite Eight. (Washington has a pair of Elite Eights but the most recent one came in 2010.)
Don’t think the rest of the conference wasn’t watching.
“A lot of the time it’s all the blue-blood programs...that are typically always in the Final Four,” said UA coach Tony Amato. “If you look back in history there’s not a lot of variation, and sometimes players look at that and you just assume you’re not going to get there. And I think now with a little variety in the Final Four, that can put things in clear sight of it is attainable and something that is maybe closer in reach than maybe some people would think.”
That it was Washington State who broke the mold should be especially motivating for the Wildcats. WSU and Arizona have more or less been equals in recent years. Both have been perennial NCAA Tournament teams and neither had advanced past the Sweet Sixteen prior to this postseason.
Meanwhile, their records since 2013, Amato’s first season at Arizona, are nearly identical:
- Washington State: 85-43-16 overall, 36-34-7 Pac-12
- Arizona: 79-48-16 overall, 35-34-8 Pac-12
And if you take Arizona’s six-game winning streak over the Cougars into account, one could argue the Wildcats have actually been the better program.
So, if Washington State can reach the College Cup, why can’t Arizona one day?
“I think the thing that is really encouraging to me is that Washington State is not necessarily one of the elite programs, but if you do the right things, and you recruit the right kinds of players, and you got a good staff, and you’ve got the right components, anybody can do it,” said Arizona assistant Sandy Davison, who coached at WSU from 2013 to 2017.
“I think we can do that at Arizona. We beat UCLA (who also made the College Cup) and we beat Washington State. So to me it’s kind of a bittersweet thing. I’m super excited for them, but I’m bummed it wasn’t us.”
WSU was fortunate to not have No. 1 overall seed Stanford on its side of the bracket like Arizona has so many times, but it still had to beat No. 1 seed Virginia and No. 4 seed West Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia to reach the Elite Eight—then win a road game at No. 2 seed South Carolina to clinch a Final Four berth.
A difficult path, though nothing a Pac-12 team should be overwhelmed by.
“The Pac-12 is such a good conference,” Davison said. “There’s so many different styles that are played. Nobody is the same. I was talking to a friend of mine at Syracuse, he used to coach in the Pac-12, and he was saying that in the ACC, it feels like there are really excellent teams, but everybody except for one or two schools all play the same way. And it’s not like that in the Pac. And I think that that prepares you for anything. And I think that’s why Pac-12 teams can go be successful in the tournament.”
One thing that does separate the Cougars from the Wildcats is they have an All-American in Morgan Weaver, who caught fire and scored four goals in five postseason games.
“A lot of stuff has to happen, right?” Amato said. “Like you gotta have a good path, you gotta be on the same page, you gotta score in the right moment. There are a lot of things that go into making the Final Four.”
Arizona’s season has ended in the second round in each of the past three seasons, but it has gotten closer and closer to taking that next step.
In 2017, the Wildcats lost 2-0 to No. 4 seed Florida State in Palo Alto. In 2018, they lost to No. 2 seed Tennessee 3-2 in Knoxville, surrendering the game-winner in the final minute.
Then this season, Arizona led No. 4 seed Penn State 2-0 with 31 minutes left and 3-2 with two and a half minutes left, before conceding the equalizer and suffering a heartbreaking loss in overtime.
“What I would want (our players) to take away from that is look how close you were,” Davison said. “We were this close to winning and we can beat anybody and we can play with anybody.”
To keep closing the gap between them and the nation’s top teams, Davison said the Wildcats need to continue adding depth and athleticism.
“I think there’s kind of a trend in the women’s game,” she said. “I think we have to continue to recruit players that are tough, that have grit. And I’m not saying that we don’t have that right now, but at the same time we have to get everybody on the roster closer to that. And honestly, I just feel like sometimes you get in a spot where you get a bit lucky. Like, things just start clicking for you at the right time, and Washington State did that.”