Jill Aguilera had it all figured out. She was going to finish her college career in November, graduate in December and enter the NWSL Draft in January.
Then the coronavirus crisis came along and threw everything for a loop.
The Pac-12’s decision to postpone fall sports to the spring meant the redshirt senior’s career was over or that she was going to have to find a way to remain eligible for the season by taking at least six units in the spring.
Aguilera had already saved as many classes as she could to hang around for the 2020 season—she’s only taking two this fall—but tried not to panic. She met with head coach Tony Amato to discuss her future and took some time to mull her next move.
Her decision? To continue her Wildcat career as a graduate student.
“I was a little nervous to figure out what I wanted to do, especially when I found out that there were so many different programs that I couldn’t do simply because I had to start in spring for me to be eligible,” said Aguilera, who’s majoring in general studies with an emphasis in sports and society. “I didn’t want to take non-degree seeking (classes) because I did want those classes to count toward something. So trying to navigate that was really difficult.”
To be clear, Aguilera still isn’t sure which postgraduate program she’ll pursue. She’s looking into master’s and certificate programs, including one in real estate development. She would like to work in digital marketing one day, but said getting a master’s in marketing at the Eller College of Management is too pricey and doesn’t match her timeline.
But whatever she chooses to study, she’s confident in her decision.
“It’s kind of bittersweet where I don’t get to play this fall, but it’s also good because then I can further my education and use that to my advantage when soccer is completely done with,” Aguilera said. “So a blessing in disguise, I guess.”
There’s another twist.
Not only is Aguilera staying for the spring season, she’s also planning to play at Arizona next fall. She can do that because the NCAA granted all fall student-athletes an extra year of eligibility to make up for the uncertainty of the pandemic.
That means Aguilera will be the first sixth-year senior in Arizona soccer history.
“COVID-19 has created so many crazy weird circumstances for everyone, and at this point it’s just a matter of if where you’re at is good for you, or if it’s time for you to move on,” she said. “And for me, staying here gives me more potential to go where I want to than if I left right now or in December when I graduate.”
Aguilera figures that if she gets two more seasons to prove herself, she can put herself in position to be drafted into the NWSL next January. Plus, she’s not quite ready to hang up her cleats just yet.
“For me, I just want to play soccer for as long as possible, and I think that last season was the first season that coaches and other teams really noticed who I was,” she said.
Aguilera netted a career-high nine goals in 2019, so they now know she’s a physical attacker with a powerful left foot. The next step is becoming more technical with her right foot.
“Being able to give them different looks is really important for me as a player, especially when there aren’t a whole lot of players that are very good with both feet,” she said. “There’s a lot of shooting and finishing and I’ve worked on movement inside the box, trying to get the ball and crossing on the ground, in the air, cutting it back, working on different runs in the box.
“This season I started taking free kicks, so I really want to get a lot better those, being able to place them exactly where I want them. The main thing is that I try and kick it very hard, and (I want) to be able to control that. ... Defensive pressing is always one of our main priorities and I know that we’re going to get a lot of training in pressing, so that’s something once we get back to contact and back to more normal training sessions, I know that we’ll be able to hone in on and I’ll get even better than I was in previous years.”
It’s a long road ahead, but Aguilera knows the power of patience.
Before she was one of the top scorers in the Pac-12, she had to overcome an ACL injury that robbed her of her freshman season. Aguilera remembers watching her team’s road games in an empty dorm room—not exactly what she envisioned for her first year of college.
“When I tore my ACL, I was like alright well there’s nothing I can do about it,” she said. “Now it’s just a matter of time before I can get back on the field and it’s going to take hard work. And then here with COVID, it’s more about being safe and being healthy while maintaining as much muscle and fitness as possible.”
Arizona players are urged to stay socially distant during the pandemic, which means spending a lot of time at home. It can be mentally straining, so occasionally Aguilera will watch NWSL games to pass the time.
They remind her that she’s on the right path, even if it’s not the original one.
“When I was younger, it was always a dream,” she said. “I always was like, ‘one day I want to get there.’ I’ve always worked really hard to get to that point and now that it’s getting closer and closer and knowing that it’s a true possibility and I’m still as determined as I was when I was 8 years old, I think that’s huge. And now I feel like if I stay on the track that I’m going, that I could get to those places.”