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Transfers Ava McCray, Grace Santos joined Arizona soccer with same goal in mind

Photos by Ryan Kelapire

Ava McCray and Grace Santos refer to themselves as twins. Sure, they aren’t sisters or even lifelong friends—heck, they just met last month—but they have some striking similarities.

Both are sophomores, both were named to their conference’s all-freshman team last season, and both transferred to Arizona this summer with the same goal in mind.

“I just wanted a higher level of soccer and a team who wanted it,” said McCray, previously at Cal Poly.

“Same thing for me,” added Santos, formerly at William & Mary. “I was looking for a different level of competition, and I think Arizona definitely offers that different level of competition each day in training, a different level of games, and the Pac-12 is really exciting.”

Another thing they have in common: They are new to Arizona, but not quite as green as the freshmen.

“It’s funny because we are sort of in the sophomore class, but obviously we weren’t here with them last year,” Santos said. “And we’re sort of with the freshmen, but obviously we’re sophomores. So it’s been really great to have each other in that in-between space as we navigate through this.”

“Obviously we’re nervous and anxious,” McCray added, “but there’s little freshman things that we don’t do.”

A Davis, California native, McCray picked Arizona over LMU, UC Davis, and Colorado College. While she was a key member of Cal Poly’s backline, she will see some time in the Wildcats’ midfield since they are well-stocked on defense for now.

“Just be good in the air and corner kicks,” McCray said when asked what she offers. “My head is one of my best qualities.”

Santos, who also considered Santa Clara, Vanderbilt and Maryland, played in all 17 games for William & Mary last season, making seven starts and scoring one goal.

Arizona coach Tony Amato called the Scottsville, Virginia native a true center midfielder, capable of defending hard and making key passes to set up the wingers and forwards.

“I can bring more of a possession-oriented style to the team,” Santos said. “I can connect the lines a little bit and bring a sense of [calmness].”

So far, both transfers look primed to make an instant impact for Arizona as it strives to make its third-straight NCAA Tournament appearance. Each played north of 50 minutes in last week’s exhibition at San Diego. Freshman Madison Goerlinger was the only reserve who played more.

“Now, how much (they play) and which games and all that I don’t totally know what that looks like yet, but I have confidence in both of them,” Amato said. “Grace works extremely hard, is fit, she’s bought into the pressing, she has a high soccer IQ. She’s someone you could sit down and watch film with and talk about the game. She’s going to contribute and she’s ready to do that.

“Ava is really good in the air, is building her confidence, is strong defensively, helps us stop teams in the back. And so we’re glad to have both of them and we think they’re going to help us move forward.”

It’s a bonus that Santos and McCray have faced elite competition before, albeit not as often as they will at Arizona.

At Cal Poly, McCray played Stanford, USC, Santa Clara, and Washington State—four teams on UA’s schedule this year. Meanwhile, Santos and William & Mary lined up against Power-5 squads like Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, Wake Forest, and Texas A&M.

“Some of the things that our freshmen will go through, they’ve already been through,” Amato said. “So we wouldn’t expect that transition because they were at college last year and away from home. They’re mature, they’re smart. And so those things will help them have a head start over some of the freshmen, and we’ve seen that play out in preseason. They’re a little more confident early on.”

Still, moving from the Big West and Colonial Athletic Association to the Pac-12 is a quantum leap, so McCray and Santos know they still have a lot to prove.

“We’re a lot more athletic as a team, and I think that the competition we’re playing is as athletic, and technically the level is higher,” Santos said.

“The game is faster too,” added McCray. “You can’t take two, three touches. You have to get it and go.”

Ironically, McCray’s first official game in an Arizona uniform is Thursday against Long Beach State, Cal Poly’s Big West rival.

“I’m pumped,” she said. “I’ve been looking forward to this game since the schedule came out.”

Partly because a Wildcats win would further validate her decision to join them. Cal Poly fell short against Long Beach State last year, and eventually finished with a 2-12-5 record.

“It was frustrating,” McCray said. “We didn’t have the best season and that’s not why I transferred…but you just want people around you that want it as bad as you. And I thought Arizona was perfect like that. I could see on my visit that the girls were here for a reason.”