Brooke Wilson has been itching to make her Pac-12 debut ever since she was an eighth grader rising through the club ranks with the San Diego Surf.
That moment was supposed to materialize last fall, but fate intervened. The Arizona forward fractured her leg during the non-conference portion of her freshman season, sidelining her until the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Then, as her luck would have it, she fell ill in the days leading up to Arizona’s spring game at ASU, keeping her out of that match too.
Wilson petitioned to play that night—”I totally could have,” she says—but the coaching staff thought better of it, a decision that irks her to this day.
“She gave me a hard time about it,” joked head coach Tony Amato.
Fast forward several months and Wilson has yet another opportunity to make her Pac-12 debut. The Wildcats (6-1) host No. 24 Colorado (8-1) on Friday to kick off conference play.
This time there’s nothing holding her back.
“It’s interesting because it wasn’t even on my radar that this is her first Pac game, then she mentioned it to me yesterday,” Amato said Thursday. “So I know she’s got it on her mind and she is fired up and ready to go, and I think she’ll unleash that energy right from the beginning.”
Wilson is “beyond excited” to see how she fares in the nation’s top conference. The Pac-12 boasts the highest winning percentage in college soccer (.813) and several of the game’s brightest stars.
“I’ve always heard Pac-12 teams are the best, and from what I watched last year it was pretty obvious,” she said. “So just being able to be part of one of those games, I’m just so excited.”
The Wildcats sure can use her. Pac-12 matches are routinely decided by the slimmest of margins. It’s one goal here or one goal there.
Consider: Arizona and Colorado have tied in three of their last four matchups. The one that did not result in a draw was a 1-0 win for the Buffaloes.
Who better to tip the scales in Arizona’s favor than Wilson and her uncanny ability to find the back of the net?
“We were even just talking about this yesterday,” Amato said. “She got the benefit in the Tennessee game (last year in the NCAA Tournament). She missed the whole season for the most part and we were down two goals to Tennessee and we put her on the field because we know she’s capable of popping up with a goal. It’s just what she does. She wasn’t fit. She wasn’t 100 percent healthy, but she might be able to score because she’s that kind of player.”
Now healthy, Wilson is scoring at the best rate of her career. She enters Friday’s match with a team-high five goals in seven games. She netted three goals in seven appearances last season.
Part of that uptick can be attributed to a heightened fitness level. Wilson, who readily admits she is far from the fittest player on the team, set personal records this summer by passing the beep and shuttle-run tests for the first time.
She also suited up—and, yes, scored a lot of goals—in the WPSL which helped her maintain game fitness in the normally-matchless month of June.
“It helped my confidence coming into the season,” she said. “That was the most important thing, especially coming off an injury.”
Amato is not surprised by Wilson’s hot start. In fact, he thinks she has only shown a sliver of what she is capable of.
“I agree with that,” Wilson said. “I think that just staying focused and making sure that my relationships continue to grow on and off the field will just create more opportunities. I feel like a lot of times that final pass gets cut off by a defender and it’s just making sure that gets better and we continue to grow off that.”
Finding, then exploiting, holes in defenses has always been one of Wilson’s strengths. It helps explain how she became one of the top recruits in her age group without having extraordinary size or speed.
The 5-foot-3 forward can anticipate where a cross will land or where a through ball will roll—and even which kind of pass each teammate is likely to deliver. Wilson closely studied her teammates’ tendencies when she was nursing her broken leg on the bench last season.
She has developed a particularly strong rapport with leading assister Jada Talley. Talley has set up two of Wilson’s five goals by putting the ball in Wilson’s favorite spots. (Usually somewhere in or around the right side of the box.)
“I feel like I can read defenders pretty well, and with the technique we have on our team to play those through balls...that’s helpful,” Wilson said. “Jada said that in club she worked on playing that second runner, and so recognizing that’s her best ball, it’s how can I get in a position to get the ball?”
While she is new to the Pac-12, Wilson isn’t some sort of secret weapon that will take the conference by surprise. She said she has played with, or against, too many Pac-12 players in her club days to ambush anyone.
Besides, her impact is easy to see. Just look at the stat sheet.
“We definitely missed her a lot last year,” said senior midfielder Kelcey Cavarra. “It would have been nice to put more goals in the back of the net and she was on fire (before getting injured). If she can bring that momentum, she’ll put us in a really good place for this season.”
One more go-around for Cavarra and Barton
Friday will mark the last time Cavarra and Colorado forward Tatum Barton will share the same field.
The Littleton, Colorado natives were first teammates when they were 6 years old, and led Columbine High School (yes, that Columbine High School) to a state championship in 2014, each netting a goal in a win over Ralston Valley.
“It’s kinda sad,” Cavarra said. “I try not to think about it. We talk all the time about not talking about it being our last season, but I’m excited to have her here and at home.”
The Buffaloes also have Barton’s younger sister, Tessa Barton. She played with Tatum and Cavarra for one season at Columbine. (She was a freshman when they were seniors.)
Tatum netted a career-high 11 goals last season, but has yet to score this season, though she does have three assists. Tessa has logged three goals, tied for second-most on the team.
“Personality-wise (they are) pretty different,” Cavarra said. “On the field they’re both gritty, tough, strong players that we gotta look out for.”
Arizona used to have another Columbine product—midfielder Amanda Porter—but she transferred to Texas Tech after last season after leading the Wildcats in assists.
The Colorado player to watch: Taylor Kornieck
The Buffaloes are led by reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week Taylor Kornieck, who was a second-team All-American last season.
The 6-foot-1 midfielder has recorded six goals and five assists this year, tied for fourth in Pac-12 in points. The senior enters on a four-game point streak and only needs five more to break Colorado’s all-time record.
“She’s obviously a beast in the air and I think we’re trying to figure out how to deal with that,” said Wilson, who was once teammates with Kornieck on the Surf.
Colorado is good defensively, too. Featuring all-conference goalkeeper Jalen Tompkins, the Buffaloes have only allowed five goals in nine games.
“They’re really dangerous with No. 22 (Kornieck) going forward and they don’t give up a lot of chances, so that’s a pretty good formula to win a lot of games,” Amato said.
A must-win game?
While Amato and UA players refuse to look past Colorado, a look ahead highlights just how important Friday’s conference opener might be.
Arizona’s next three games are:
- vs. No. 7 UCLA
- vs. No. 3 USC
- at No. 21 Washington State (TopDrawerSoccer ranks the Cougars as the ninth-best team in the country)
So...lose to the Buffaloes and the Wildcats very well could go winless in their first four conference games. Beat Colorado and anything but three losses in those next three matches would put Arizona in a solid spot the rest of the way.
“I think we’ve won over 80 percent of our non-conference games, our league has, so we know that every game is basically facing a top-25 opponent,” Amato said. “It’s always a challenge, but we’re just going to take it one at a time. I know that’s coach talk, but that’s really what our focus is. We gotta find a way to win tomorrow and then move on from there.”
Interviews from Thursday’s practice
Here’s Arizona coach Tony Amato on leading scorer Brooke Wilson, who is “fired up and ready” to play in her first Pac-12 game Friday after missing most of last season with a broken leg. pic.twitter.com/fYhMrlc2WU— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) September 26, 2019
Arizona leading scorer @brookiiew231 missed conference play last year with a broken leg, so she’s “beyond excited” about Friday’s match vs. Colorado.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) September 26, 2019
“I’ve been waiting since like 8th grade, trying to get to a Pac-12 game.” pic.twitter.com/gf2OmdIZ5c