There were plenty of hugs and high-fives on the pitch last weekend when Arizona soccer picked up two fun, stress-free wins against Weber State and Tennessee Tech.
Now, things get real.
The Wildcats host Oklahoma (3-0-1) and UC Irvine (1-3) on Friday and Sunday respectively, two teams that not only are traditionally solid, but have given the Wildcats fits in recent years.
Arizona split a home-and-home series against the Sooners in 2016 and 2017 (the road team winning each time). UC Irvine has mucked it up with the Wildcats the past two seasons, earning a scoreless draw in Tucson in 2017 before Arizona eeked out a 1-0 win in Irvine last season.
Both were tough, physical games. And while the Anteaters have lost three of their first four games this year, two of those losses came at the hands of top-10 teams (Virginia and Vanderbilt).
“So, two really good games and I think coming out of the weekend we’ll really know where we’re at this point in the season,” said Arizona coach Tony Amato.
This weekend’s results could go a long way toward boosting—or deflating—UA’s résumé come Selection Monday too.
“I think we’re excited,” said senior midfielder Kelcey Cavarra. “I think it’ll be a good test for us, just given our high scores last week and it only being our third game. First game at home, so that’ll be fun.”
Arizona is usually known for their gritty, high-press brand of soccer, but they are developing a new identity this season while still maintaining their old one. It includes lots and lots of scoring.
Counting the spring and an exhibition against San Diego in mid August, Arizona has netted 27 goals in their last six games, or about 4.5 goals per match.
Through two regular season games, the Wildcats have scored nine goals. Sophomores Brooke Wilson (3) and Iliana Hocking (2) lead the charge so far.
“I think our potential is great,” said junior forward Jill Aguilera. “I think that we can beat our own records of goalscoring.”
That offensive prowess can attributed to an increase in talent, yes, but also to more diligent preparation inside the 18-yard box.
“In this past spring, we worked a lot on combining in the box, shooting a lot on our attack, because I think we want to score more goals,” Aguilera said. “We’ve had a lot of opportunities, a lot of shots in the past seasons, and I think that this year is the year that we’ll really capitalize on all the opportunities that we create.”
Arizona has been dominant defensively too, allowing just five shots in a pair of shutouts so far. As of Thursday, they were one of just five teams in the country yet to concede a goal. That caveat, obviously, is that they have faced two cupcake teams so far.
That won’t be the case from here on out.
“We’re nowhere near a finished product yet. If we are, it’d be a long season at this point,” Amato said. “We’re going to keep getting better and we have a lot to improve on and we’ll see where we’re at come Oklahoma.”
Goal-keeping them on their toes
For now, Arizona plans to continue rotating their two goalkeepers. Last weekend, sophomore Kendyll Humphreys and freshman Hope Hisey recorded a clean sheet in the wins over Weber State and Tennessee Tech, respectively. Both were making their first-ever starts.
Amato says the position is in a good place, and who starts this weekend will be determined by their opponent’s tendencies.
“We’ll make that decision basically the night before each game,” he said.
Both keepers said recently that the competition between them has elevated their games.
“It’s easy to get complacent if you have somebody who isn’t really competing for the spot,” Humphreys said. “So it’s good that she’s pushing me to do everything that I can to get better. And she’s definitely shown the same competitiveness that I have.”
Humphreys thought her debut against Weber State “went pretty well”, though she acknowledged that she did not have to do a whole lot since the Wildcats were in control for most of the match.
“The one free kick that they had, I just needed to organize better,” Humphreys said. “And I think that that shot was something that I’d be able to hold. So it’s just getting the technique down and stuff.”
Hisey had a big save against Tennessee Tech, slapping an angled shot over the crossbar, but otherwise went unchallenged too.
Humphreys said she is excited to be tested against Oklahoma and/or UC Irvine this weekend.
“I kind of went into [last] weekend expecting us to split time,” Humphreys said. “But we usually find out the day of the game and it’s usually on that scouting report when we go over the starting lineup.”
How does Humphreys feel about that approach?
“I feel good about it,” she said. “Hope deserves to play as much as I do, so I think it’s a good decision on the coaches’ part.”
Wilson, Hocking, and Samantha Falasco—who account for six of UA’s nine goals so far—all starred for the San Diego Surf in the WPSL this summer.
So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they are sparking Arizona’s offense in the early part of the college season.
Wilson, in particular. The Vista, California native recorded six goals and three assists in seven games for the Surf, who completed their season in late June.
Using the WPSL to boost her fitness level, Wilson passed the beep and shuttle tests this July for the first time ever.
“I think when you play over the summer, it keeps you sharp and you know you don’t have as much rust going into the season,” Amato said. “You at least have some game experience. Because it’s not like you played 20 games over the course of two months in the summer. They play like eight to 10 games. So it’s not about getting burnt out or too tired. It’s just enough game to stay sharp and come into the season and get off to a hot start.”
Talley receives another honor from TopDrawerSoccer
UA forward Jada Talley was listed in TopDrawerSoccer’s Pac-12 Top 20, checking in at No. 14 on the list. This comes after she was placed 65th in TDS’ Preseason National Top 100.
The junior scored a team-high seven goals last year, and notched her first goal of 2019 against Weber State, before recording an assist against Tennessee Tech.
“For this year, I need to improve on putting away more of my chances,” Talley said last week. “I know I get a lot a game.”
Interviews from Thursday’s practice
Hear what Tony Amato had to say leading up to Arizona Soccer’s matches against Oklahoma and UC IrvinePosted by AZ Desert Swarm on Friday, September 6, 2019
Arizona sophomore goalkeeper @kendyllh12 talks about making her first-ever start last weekend, the areas she needs to improve, and what it’s been like to compete with @hopehisey31 pic.twitter.com/5Lf6TwDb8e— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) September 5, 2019
Here’s senior midfielder @kelceylc3 on @ArizonaSoccer’s upcoming matches vs. Oklahoma and UC Irvine, UA’s high scoring potential, and @jill_aguilera’s leadership pic.twitter.com/sqRbYWKE7N— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) September 6, 2019