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Arizona soccer notebook: On ‘the fittest team we’ve had’, transfers standing out, and the San Diego road trip

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

Tony Amato has only had one week to coach up his team, but its foundation is already set.

“Listen, this team competes,” the Arizona head coach said Saturday after its Red-Blue scrimmage. “There’s no question about that. They’re fit, they compete, they work really hard. All the little things we gotta get a lot better at, but the foundation of that competitiveness is awesome and we saw that tonight.”

Amato proudly announced to fans in attendance that this is the fittest team he has ever had, citing its fitness scores and the fact that every player passed the dreaded beep test.

“It is the fittest team we’ve had and they play hard,” he later confirmed. “In order to play that hard, you have to be fit. And we ask them to do some crazy things in terms of how much ground they cover, and they get it done, and that’s why they play for us. They knew they’d have to be that fit and they came in fit, got a little fitter over the last few weeks, and they’ll continue to get match fit, but that competitiveness, that fitness is at a really high level and you saw that tonight.”

Arizona has the 25th-toughest schedule in the country (based on its opponents’ 2018 records), and the Wildcats figure their heightened conditioning will help them win the inevitable nail-biters they will find themselves in all season.

“I think that shows up on the field as making those extra runs, getting inside the box, taking that extra to get goal-scoring opportunities,” said junior forward Jill Aguilera, who scored the lone goal in the Red-Blue scrimmage. “And if we need to go into overtime, we know we have the legs to do that.”

After training in Tucson on Monday, the Wildcats head to Southern California where they will practice for a few days before facing the University of San Diego on Friday in their first, and only, exhibition before the Aug. 22 opener vs. Long Beach State.

Amato laughed when asked what his team needs to work on.

“You want the list? It’s a lot of stuff,” he said. “We have to remember that we only started on Tuesday. So while I like the competitiveness, while I like the team’s spirit so far, there’s so many little things in a soccer game that relate to winning that we have to get up to speed on. There’s so many little moments that when I was standing on the field in the middle of the (Red-Blue) game tonight, it’s really obvious we gotta grow and get better and get to work. So it is just four days in, so as expected we have work to do, but there are some positives to build off.”

Aguilera said Arizona has to improve its execution on set pieces.

“But other than that I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job,” she said.

Transfers stand out early

Amato thought sophomore transfers Ava McCray (Cal Poly) and Grace Santos (William & Mary) were among the newcomers who stood out Saturday.

“It’s obvious that they’re not true freshmen,” Amato said.

Santos, an attacking center midfielder who flashed several times throughout the Red-Blue Game, helped set up Aguilera’s goal. The Scottsville, Virginia native made the Colonial Athletic Association’s All-Freshman team last season, and should help the Wildcats replace some of the playmaking they lost when leading assister Amanda Porter transferred to Texas Tech.

“I thought she did a really good job in the middle and she’s really ready to step into that role and do well for us,” Aguilera said.

A test run

The Wildcats’ first five regular season games are in Arizona (three in Tucson, two in Tempe), so their trip to San Diego gives them a chance to experience life on the road before their first “real” road trip in mid September, when they will head to the Bay Area to face No. 13 Santa Clara and San Jose State.

“It’s important for us I thought with this group to go and train in a different environment for a few days, for a team camaraderie standpoint, from a focus standpoint, and getting a game in. It’s just something different,” Amato said. “This gave us an opportunity to go on the road in preseason, which we don’t always have, and we think it will be a great experience for the staff and the team to get out of this environment for a few days, play a game and train together in a new location.”

But not that new.

Arizona lists 11 players from Southern California, including three from the San Diego area—sophomore forwards Brooke Wilson and Iyana Zimmerman, and senior forward Dana Dalton.

There is also Aguilera, who is originally from the Bay Area but recently moved to Vista, California, a suburb of San Diego.

“I’m so excited. My whole family’s coming, my friends are coming, it’ll be a great atmosphere,” Wilson said. “We’ll have a lot of support. ... I think it’ll be like we almost have a home game.”

San Diego went 8-9-1 last season, finishing sixth in the West Coast Conference.

One thing to watch will be how the Wildcats divvy up their goalkeeping minutes. Will they give sophomore Kendyll Humphreys and freshman Hope Hisey a half each, or will they give one the full 90, essentially declaring a starter?

Amato thought Humphreys, whose side did not concede a goal in the Red-Blue scrimmage, was “solid as a rock.”

“Really good with her feet, composed,” he said. “There’s still things we want to get better at, but both keepers are confident with their feet, we were able to play it back to them and do some things that we’ve been working on, so I think they’re in a good place.”