Good news is hard to come by in 2020 as the world fights the coronavirus, but Arizona soccer players received some a few weeks ago when head coach Tony Amato asked them to bring shin guards to their next practice.
“That was one of the best texts I got from him all semester,” said forward Kayden Heinrich.
It meant they had been cleared for full contact practices after almost three months of non-contact practices—if you can call them that.
The Wildcats were training eight hours a week, doing drills that were, more or less, shooting and passing while maintaining at least six feet of distance. (“Foosball,” as Amato described it.)
Now they are training closer to the 20-hour NCAA maximum, striking a balance between having fun and preparing for the upcoming season, which is slated to start in February.
“So, setting up some of their favorite games where it’s more scrimmage-like stuff, but smaller numbers, 4-v-4, 6-v-6, 8-v-8 type stuff while also being able to imprint some of our basic identity pieces that we would want to build off when we come back in January,” Amato said. “Really just so when I use some of the language we use to describe our attack or defense that the new players know what the heck I’m actually talking about.”
It’s a good thing junior midfielder Iliana Hocking is an experienced player because she probably hasn’t been listening too much lately. She joked that she’s been so euphoric about playing soccer again that “I’m always in my own little world.”
The team’s vibe has completely shifted since it advanced to full contact.
“The energy changed because it was becoming stagnant and restrictive,” Amato said. “You want to play the sport, right? And so as much as I love the process, and I love to train, not all the players always feel the same way as the coach. They want to play and I totally understand that.”
Arizona’s last game was all the way back in February when they routed UTEP in their one and only spring exhibition. Their last “real” game was in the NCAA Tournament last November.
That’s a long layoff for a team that usually begins its season in mid-August and ends around this time of year, and it’s showed in these first few weeks of contact practices.
“Well, obviously we’re pretty rusty, right?” Amato said. “So it’s just a matter of working through that. But I feel like we have good enough players in all positions to win Pac-12 games. We obviously are not in any sort of game mode and we’re working on what it takes to win those games in terms of fitness component, the work-rate components, how sharp you have to be, but there is a foundation of that I feel really good about the talent of the team.”
Advancing to contact practices requires extra precautions. In addition to wearing masks and staying physically-distant from the public like before, players are now COVID tested three times a week instead of once.
They take a PCR test every Monday (just like before) plus antigen tests on Tuesdays and Fridays before every contact practice. They test at the Hall of Champions or the Lowell-Stevens facility at 7 a.m. so they can get their results by the afternoon.
That’ll be their routine until Thanksgiving break.
“At this point I’ve just kind of gotten used to sticking the little swab up my nose every week,” Heinrich said. “But as long as it means that we can continue to do contact practices and get better and get closer to a season, I’m all for it.”
Heinrich is one of 13 freshmen on Arizona’s roster, the largest class in the Amato era (though not all of them are on campus right now). Their speed and athleticism has been evident in these preseason practices but their soccer skills remain somewhat of a mystery.
“They’ve yet to score a goal in college, they’ve yet to shut someone down in college and yet to make a save in college, so you don’t exactly know how that’s gonna look,” Amato said. “But in terms of just training so far this semester, I feel good about the level that we have on the team.”
The picture will become a little clearer Friday when the Wildcats host their first scrimmage at 6 p.m. They don’t have a full roster right now because several players stayed home for the semester due to COVID concerns, so they will likely have to play 9-v-9 or 10-v-10.
That’s a small compromise.
At one point any kind of scrimmage seemed unlikely this fall. In early September, the Wildcats feared they had a major outbreak when seven players and staffers tested positive for coronavirus. The team was set to be shut down for 14 days, causing many players to head home to quarantine.
The results turned out to be false positives and they resumed trained, but soon after Hocking actually did contract the virus and began suffering some pretty serious respiratory symptoms.
That was an isolated case (and she’s fine now) but both incidents caught the team’s attention.
“Yeah, it was scary,” Heinrich said of the initial false positives. “Our team had been doing, and continues to do, such a great job of following protocol and we make sure that we do everything right because we want to continue to train and represent the university well.”
Their perseverance is a big reason they’ll finally get to enjoy some normalcy on Friday under the lights at Mulcahy Stadium.
“It’s pretty rewarding staying here all semester and going through not doing contact and working our way up to it,” Hocking said. “So it’s exciting, we’re all excited. ... It’s gonna be nice to actually see something super competitive in our jerseys and seeing a sneak peek as to what February is going to be like.”