The Arizona soccer team opens its spring season Saturday when it hosts UTEP at 3 p.m. MST, the first of at least two spring games, the other being against BYU on March 21.
The Wildcats are coming off a 12-7-1 season in which they advanced to the Round of 32 where they lost to No. 4 seed Penn State.
Arizona had an eventful offseason, losing seven players to transfer as well as seven players to graduation, leaving just 13 on the roster until the 2020 recruiting class arrives in the summer.
I caught up with senior forward Jada Talley (UA’s leading scorer), junior midfielder Iliana Hocking, and sophomore defender Mariah Dunn on Friday to talk about the spring season and the state of the program.
Here is what they had to say:
Ryan Kelapire: What did you learn from the 2019 season?
Talley: “I feel like we learned how to overcome things. I feel like that was a big thing for us. Like, so many people leaving, obviously everybody knows. But I just feel like the girls who are here, I feel really comfortable with. I feel like everyone’s improving as a player too. I’m getting surprised every day at practice and what some of the girls do. So it’s just really cool seeing that and seeing everybody work past all the media and everyone saying, ‘oh, why did everybody leave?’ and asking those questions and stuff. So I’m just looking forward to our next season. I feel like we’re going to be really good as a team and we’re going to add new people, and we’re going to be even better than last year.”
Hocking: “We learned we should be confident against big ranked teams, because we’ve proven we can beat UCLA and Washington State, and they both went to the Final Four. And I think we all proved that we’re really hard workers and we don’t care if teams are better than us, we’re still going to come out and give them a fight. And we expect the newcomers to help us and have the same work ethic that we do and hope to have a successful season and even go further in the tournament than last year.”
Dunn: “Everybody wants to get to the tournament, but I think last season when we lost against Penn State, that was definitely a learning curve for us because we were up, and we need to make sure that like we can finish the game off like when we need to. ... It set a fire underneath us for this year coming up. Obviously when we did lose, everybody’s hurt, everybody was upset that we were so close, but we know what we need to do the next year to improve.”
Talley: “Yes it’s good that we made it to the tournament, but we need to set that standard higher and finish games out, because we’ve done that a lot. We did that against Washington too and that could have been an easy win for us, so we need to throw that part of our game into practice more and keep it in our minds more. I think that’s the last part of our game that we’re missing as a team.”
RK: Why should people not be concerned about your team losing so many players?
Talley: “I’m not trying to throw shade, but everyone who left kind of left for personal reasons. And it, to me, had to do with the lack of playing time they were getting. So we’re still returning so many people that do get that playing time and are here to show out for the team and for the crowd that comes out. So I think we’re going to be just fine. We’re returning a lot of people that I love to play with and I know that they’re great players, so I’m looking forward to it.”
Hocking: “Transfers are just a part of women’s college soccer and it happens everywhere, so I think everyone expects some people to come and go, but everyone’s mentality is you still have to work hard, you can’t just focus on people leaving, you still have to focus on yourself, focus on the team, work hard, and you’re going to get back to that place and you might even be better than you were before. And we still have so many girls that got great reps during last season, a lot of people started, played quality minutes, and everyone is experienced playing in big Pac 12 games. I think we’ll be just fine.”
RK: What do you guys do in the spring?
Talley: “We work out so much.”
Dunn: “So hard, way harder than summer.”
Hocking: “Yeah, we get yoked. Spring consists of just a lot of weightlifting. You can’t play soccer that much. You have the eight weeks, you can only play soccer two hours at the beginning of each week, so it’s to add strength and it’s good for injury prevention, getting everyone strong, make sure everyone’s agile...so you’re better for next season and even healthier.”
Dunn: “I also think during spring it’s more specified to you and what you need as a player, because during summer you’re doing team workouts. But during spring, we have certain groups that we’re put into based on what we need to work on—like agility, strength, and fitness.”
Talley: “There’s a lot of competition based off the weight room. I feel like a lot of that goes into conditioning, and we do challenges. We have Bear Down Games or Red vs. Blue and that’s all basically weight room stuff. So I feel like they’re just trying to focus on getting us big because they don’t want us lifting much in the season. So this is a little four-month period for everyone to just get big and get their body ready for the five-month season that we have.”
RK: What are you trying to get out of the spring games?
Talley: “We’re just trying to get used to playing with each other, because these are going to be the girls that we’re going to have for season. We’re just looking to add maybe a couple, two or three, who are going to genuinely help us in my opinion. So I think it’s just getting reps with each other. You can only do so much in practice against each other. And I feel like people who didn’t get to start every game like Mariah last year, it’s her time to shine and take that spot and make it hers.”
Dunn: “Like Jada said, this is my time to shine and show what I can do for the program and show I can be an impact for the team since I didn’t get to do that last year. ... I think that [fans] can expect my aggressiveness on the field, and I like to attack down-line and stuff, so getting crosses in, anything that can help.”
Hocking: “We haven’t played a game in a couple months so it’s just getting everyone that game experience and getting people who didn’t get to play in that many games last year more reps so they’re more comfortable with the environment and people they’re playing, and even trying people out at different positions .... I want to see how that looks in spring when the games aren’t counting for a record but we still want to be successful.”
RK: What’s your personal goal in 2020?
Talley: “I want to get the (scoring) record.* I know the (NWSL) draft is in January, I really want to get drafted. I don’t know about overseas yet, but either one is an option for me. I know I didn’t want to play pro...but I do now. I think my mind has changed and I feel like I’ve matured as a player and I’ve seen what I can do. I kind of proved it to myself because I know I didn’t have this much confidence this time last year.”
Dunn: “This year I want to definitely prove myself individually as a defender. Because last year playing midfield showed me that, yeah, I wasn’t used to playing that position but I got more comfortable. And then when I play defender now, I feel that I can contribute more because I’ve always played there.”
Hocking: “I want to get more fit. I want to be able to play the full 90 and help consistently throughout those 90 minutes, and I want to work more on attacking and shooting. I scored three goals last year, which was awesome. I don’t score that much and that’s a great feeling to help the team like directly, so it’d be awesome to get more in attack, as we are losing Brooke (Wilson), who did score a good amount of goals.”
*Talley needs 15 goals to become UA’s all-time leading scorer
RK: Other than yourself, who has impressed you in the spring so far?
Talley: “I want to answer that after the game. Yes, you get to showcase yourself in practice, but it only goes so far. We don’t do drills. We haven’t really scrimmaged yet.”
Dunn: “Yeah, we don’t have enough players.”
RK: Okay, so what are you looking forward to seeing then?
Talley: “I want to see somebody take over the [midfield] because I feel like we’re gonna have a lockdown backline once they get playing with each other and everybody gets more comfortable. I know for us when we have a good game with our midfielders, we always win. So seeing somebody shine in the middle will make me feel good about it.”
Hocking: “I feel like we have a lot of experience up top, so I’m not too worried about that. So I would say definitely this game I want to see who in the backline (stands out) because the backline hasn’t played together in any games. So how they’re going to work together and how everyone’s going to shine and show their strengths, that’s gonna be really interesting to see. And what formation we play in the back and how comfortable everyone is.”
RK: For the freshmen arriving in the fall, what’s the biggest challenge they will face?
Dunn: “The biggest challenge that I faced was definitely coming in and we got a packet for summer to work out. And when I came here, I was fit but I wasn’t as fit as I should have been. So I think that coming in, you need to make sure you’re running every day and getting that game fitness up, because it’s different, especially when you’re in the heat. Mental toughness is a big thing. Because I think there’s a lot of times where some of us freshmen were like, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it here’ but you have to know that this is what you got recruited for, this is what you’re signing up to do.”
Hocking: “It’s just a big jump from club. In club it was so slow compared to this. You realize how much running you have to do in the game and how hard you have to work. In club you can really get away with walking around, seeing how the game’s going. But it’s very competitive in college. I think all the girls need to come ready for that competitive aspect of it. You might not come in and start. You just have to deal with it, work your ass off and not expect anything.”
Talley: “Summer is a test on your mental toughness because it is very freaking hard. It is very hard so I feel like it’s players being able to come in and not being like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t do this’ after a week because it’s going to test you and you’re not going to want to do it. It’s 9,000 degrees. So I think it’s just making it through that and realizing that it’s soccer, you’ve been doing it your whole life, you’re here for a reason, you got recruited for a reason, so keep that in the back of your mind and just push through it. You have all of us to lean on. Everybody who’s here wants to be here or we would have transferred.”