Sophomore forward Brooke Wilson was bubbling after the Arizona Wildcats completed their first practice on Tuesday. Not only did it mean the 2019 season is drawing closer, it also meant a grueling month of fitness testing, mercifully, is over.
“I was really excited to be here today,” Wilson said, her voice exemplifying that. “The fitness is mentally draining, physically draining. This is fun. This is where we’re all at home. This is what we came here to do. Not to run.”
That last comment spurred a reaction from head coach Tony Amato, who was listening nearby.
“Brooke!” he yelled.
“We know that we have to do it, but...”
They would rather be on the field.
Bright and early Tuesday, the Wildcats started the mad dash that is the college soccer preseason. Their first exhibition is on Aug. 16, just 10 days away. The regular season opener against Long Beach State is six days after that.
Needing to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, the Wildcats practice twice a day. The first session kicks off around 7:30 p.m. The second session begins around 3 p.m. Tuesday morning’s training, an intense, three-hour session in hot, sticky weather, went as expected, Amato said.
“I think we have a hard-working, competitive team that came in really fit, did the work in the offseason to come in in a good place,” he said. “(We) haven’t played at the intensity of our training sessions, really, in months, and there’s some things there that, just even getting up to speed on the training environment, the intensity of that, some of the details that you could lose over the course of the summer, are important to us.”
Amato went over some of those details in the post-practice huddle—pressing, winning second balls. making hustle plays, and executing in the box.
“But overall, we have a good group that we’re happy to finally be on the field and can start moving forward and get better,” he said.
Arizona returns eight starters, including leading scorer Jada Talley, from a team that went 13-6-2 and reached the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.
Expectations are high, with senior leaders Kelcey Cavarra and Samantha Falasco saying they want to make it to the Sweet Sixteen (for the first time since 2015), the Elite Eight (for the first time ever), or even further than that.
The Wildcats are ranked No. 31 in the preseason coaches’ poll, fourth-best in the Pac-12.
Here are some of the questions facing this year’s squad.
How will it replace three key starters?
Just like every year, the Wildcats have some important players to replace, none more so than former goalkeeper Lainey Burdett, who departed the program as the all-time shutouts leader and now plays for the NWSL’s Orlando Pride.
Burdett had been the starter since 2015. Rarely, if ever, did she miss a game. Her replacement will be an underclassman with zero real game experience—freshman Hope Hisey or sophomore Kendyll Humphreys.
To give you the skinny, Hisey is a Tucson native who, at 5-foot-9, is a couple inches taller than Humphreys and has plenty of athleticism, stemming from her background as a basketball player at Canyon del Oro High School.
Humphreys, from the Phoenix area, has been lauded for her shot stopping (she has big hands), and excels with her feet, as she played forward growing up. She also has the advantage of having a year in the program under her belt. And even though she has not played in an “real” game, she did start three games during the spring season.
The key for both goalkeepers will be establishing rapport with the backline, a strong unit that is returning all four starters, and gaining some confidence.
“Just like every position, you have competition,” Amato said. “But when you have older players who have been there and done... they usually grasp quicker, are more confident quicker, ... so we would expect (Humphreys) to be a little further along than where Hope is, but Hope’s trained with (assistant coach) Paul (Nagy), she knows what Paul expects, it’s just a matter of her getting comfortable with the entire team and this environment. And so sometimes that takes a little bit of time.”
On the other side of the field, Arizona has to replace attacking midfielder Amanda Porter, who transferred to Texas Tech. She led the Wildcats in assists (7) last season (and scored four goals), playmaking on the left side of the field.
Amato singled out sophomore Iyana Zimmerman as someone who can help fill that void. The San Diego native was mostly a reserve last year and only had one assist, but she improved as the year went on, earning a place in the starting lineup in the NCAA Tournament win over Denver.
“We have a group of players that can do it that we’re looking at, but we had a good spring from Iyana,” Amato said. “She matured, she started to understand what we need from her. She’s one of the best pressing players we have. She’s athletic. She’s fast.”
Arizona also has to be replace four-year starter Kennedy Kieneker, who was most known for winning 50-50 balls in the midfield and distributing from there. Sophomore Iliana Hocking, a key reserve last season, is poised to step into that role, Amato said.
“Ili is great in the air, tough, hard-working,” he said.
Will Arizona keep winning the close ones?
Arizona had a weak non-conference schedule last season. This year? Quite the opposite. It ranks 30th in the country, featuring matches against TCU, Oklahoma, UC Irvine, and No. 13 Santa Clara (on the road, no less).
Combine that with an even tougher conference schedule—the Pac-12 is always brutal—and it means Arizona will be entrenched in close, one-goal games virtually all season.
Last year, the Wildcats were successful in such games, going 6-3. If they go 3-6 or even 4-5, they likely miss the postseason.
Wilson, who should be one of UA’s top scorers this season, said the key to winning those games is executing in and around the 18-yard box. Much of Tuesday’s practice was spent performing different kinds of runs in the attacking third.
“That’s how you win or lose,” Wilson said. “And that’s what I think that we’re focusing on right now. And that’ll make a difference in a lot of our games.”
So will the Wildcats’ conditioning. During the offseason, several players noted how the team is in great shape, posting better scores on fitness tests than ever. Wilson, who set personal bests on the beep test and shuttle drills this summer, called it a “new bar.”
Amato agreed Tuesday, saying the standard has risen since he took over as head coach in 2013.
“Everyone we play are good, they can win the game, we can win the game. ... It’s not always like basketball, (where it’s) equal possessions at each end and come down to the wire. It can be one lack-of-focus mistake,” he said. “You give up the goal, you lose 1-nil. Or you’re on the other end of that and score it. That’s the sport, and we know that’s what it is. And being able to concentrate and focus throughout an entire 90 minutes or an extra time period or two extra time periods is where games are won and lost.”
Which newcomers will emerge?
Freshmen have been instrumental in Arizona’s success in each of the past two seasons, especially last season when center back Hallie Pearson and midfielder Emily Knous started nearly every game, while Wilson, Hocking, and Zimmerman were key reserves.
Arizona’s top recruit never made it to campus, but it still brought in six highly-regarded freshmen this fall, plus sophomore defender Ava McCray (from Cal Poly) and sophomore midfielder Grace Santos (from William & Mary), who made their respective conference’s all-freshman team last season before transferring.
While it is possible (likely, even) that none of them start, at least a few will have some sort of role off the bench.
One challenge newbies face is they simply do not have much time to get acclimated. There’s also the significant difference in play between club soccer (or even mid-major soccer) and the Pac-12, which boasts three top-five teams this season (UCLA, Stanford, and USC).
Some newcomers adjust quickly and are successful right away. Some don’t play. Others cost their team games.
“Sometimes people have to touch the stove to learn, and if you’re that type of person, that can be the biggest hurdle,” Amato said. “You can work on it, you can teach them, you can talk about it, you can show video of something like marking inside the box that maybe you’ve got away with in club or the player didn’t punish you for it. At this level, it feels like every half step you give somebody, the ball ends up in the back of the net.”