When the coronavirus crisis sent Arizona soccer home for the spring, the first thing on Tony Amato’s to-do list was making sure his players were healthy, safe, and in a good place mentally and academically as they transitioned to life off campus.
The next thing was ensuring they are staying engaged with each other, that they aren’t losing their minds in quarantine.
That’s where the Bear Down Games come in handy. Every spring the Wildcats break into two teams—Red and Blue, of course—and compete in various soccer-related activities to hone their skills and learn some valuable team-building lessons.
With the soccer component virtually impossible to replicate these days, the Bear Down Games have taken on new life this spring. The Wildcats regularly meet—and compete—in Zoom meetings. One of the events was a scavenger hunt.
“One person came into the room and we gave them instructions that say to make an omelet,” Amato said. “Every person on the team had to go in their house, get an ingredient that we gave them, and no two people could have the same ingredient. And then once their team accomplishes it, they move on to the next task and the team to accomplish all the tasks first wins.”
Other Bear Down Games include charades and, coming Thursday, trivia.
“It’s just some things like that to get them competing and working with each other,” Amato said.
It builds team leadership, one of the many things Amato and his staff assess after every season.
“We put a lot of emphasis on the areas that we trained that are our identity pieces, like set pieces or pressing, defending or finding a way forward in terms of our possession,” he said. “We look at all those things and see if what we trained translated to scoring goals or preventing goals. And if it did, how can we do more of that? If it didn’t, how can we improve that or change things to make sure we keep evolving and developing every year?
“And the other thing, and this season was a big reminder of it, is where are we at with the competitive, ‘tough stuff’ we like to call it. Where’s our toughness, our mental toughness? How hard do we compete? Are we doing that at a higher level than our opponent? And I think coming out of the season we showed once again that when we compete at a high level, we can do a lot of good things.”
Amato said his team’s effort, as usual, fluctuated in 2019. The Wildcats experienced some incredible highs, like beating two Final Four teams in UCLA and Washington State, but also some maddening losses like the late collapses vs. Washington and Penn State.
Arizona held leads of 2-0 and 3-2 on the No. 4-seeded Nittany Lions in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but surrendered the game-tying goal with two minutes left in regulation and then the game-winner seven minutes into overtime.
It marked the third straight year the Wildcats lost in the second round, but also the first time in program history they made three straight postseason appearances.
A bittersweet ending, to be sure.
“I was proud of our team and the way we competed, the effort we put in an NCAA Tournament game against one of the better teams in the country every year,” Amato said. “We gave them everything they could handle, competed at a high level and lost in overtime in a game that could have gone either way.”
Who knows what the future holds
If there is a college sport at the greatest risk of having its season canceled or postponed by the coronavirus, it’s soccer. Opening night is usually in mid-to-late August, less than four months from now.
Pro sports aren’t close to resuming, but Amato is optimistic that there will be a college soccer season and that it will start “relatively on time.” UA president Robert C. Robbins announced Thursday that in-person classes will resume this fall, a must in order for college sports to return.
“I’m trying not to get bogged down by all the speculation and all the doom and gloom stuff you’re seeing out there, whether it’s in the news or social media,” Amato said. “And I think some of the states reopening will be the initial test of, are there spikes (in cases)? Are there declines? Does it stay the same? How does that relate to college campuses? How does that relate to student-athletes? Because I want to make sure that we’re responsible and safe.”
If college soccer does have an advantage during this crisis, it’s that it can restart quickly. It’s used to lightning-quick turnarounds, after all.
Teams normally start summer workouts in mid-July and begin formal practices around the first day of August. The first game is typically just two weeks after that.
“We have the shortest amount of time compared to any sport in the country,” Amato said. “I would say we’d be nimble and be able to move pretty quickly. I don’t have like an exact set time (it would take us to get ready) because I don’t know exactly where our athletes are from a fitness and strength standpoint. We wouldn’t want to do anything that’s like going 1,000 miles out of the gate if they didn’t do any sort of fitness and training during this time.”
Fortunately, Arizona has been using an app called “Bridge”, which allows strength and conditioning coach Jim Krumpos to design and deliver individual workout plans to each player based on the equipment available to them during this national quarantine.
“He was also able to send some people some bands and things to be able to stay active and mobile and workout a little,” Amato said. “Obviously, it’s a lot different than if you’re in camp, but it’s something that we felt was important from a physical and mental standpoint. And then weekly, we’re just sticking to individual workouts, soccer videos in our group communication so that if they can get out and touch the ball, there’s a way to do that on their own.”
A 2020 outlook
Unlike last year, the Wildcats have lots of question marks entering the season. They lost 13 players—six seniors and seven transfers—including five starters: midfielder Kelcey Cavarra, centerbacks Samantha Falasco and Hallie Pearson, outside back Morgan McGarry and forward Brooke Wilson, the team’s third-leading scorer.
While the backline and midfield are works in progress, Arizona knows it can lean on All-Pac-12 Freshman goalkeeper Hope Hisey, a stout left back and senior leader in Sabrina Enciso, and a cadre of dynamic attackers.
Led by a trio of upperclassmen, the Wildcats netted five goals in a shutout of UTEP in late February, their lone match of the spring. Jada Talley had a brace. Hannah Clifford had a hat trick. Jill Aguilera set them up.
That was nothing new for Talley (10) and Aguilera (9), who led Arizona in goals in 2019. But it was a big breakthrough for Clifford, whose three goals vs. UTEP matched her career total.
“That showed that she’s ready to really take on a bigger role as a senior,” Amato said. “She’s always played for us, but she was really dynamic in that game.”
Junior center back/midfielder Ava McCray and junior center midfielder Grace Santos also look primed for more playing time. They were key reserves in 2019 after transferring in from Cal Poly and William & Mary, respectively, where they made their conference’s all-rookie team.
“Usually transfers and new players, you see them take about a season to really take off with us,” Amato said. “And I thought they did a good job in the fall, but in that game I thought ‘okay, those two transferred in, they have their feet under them now.’”
Amato said similar things about sophomore outside back Mariah Dunn, who only appeared in six matches as a freshman but should help solidify the right side of the revamped backline.
“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,” Dunn said earlier in the spring. “[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.”
How quickly can the freshmen adjust?
Of course, the burning question is the same every offseason: How much will the freshmen be able to contribute?
“And what I mean by that is which freshmen are going to adapt quickly,” Amato said.
The Wildcats signed 12 recruits in this cycle, one of their largest classes to date. Almost half their roster will be freshmen, so some will need to grow up quickly.
“I would say competitiveness, height, toughness, kind of that grit factor is all there, and they can also fill what we need to do soccer-wise,” Amato described the group. “Sometimes you fall into (the mindset) of ‘well, they’re just an athlete or they’re just a technical soccer player.’ And I think they provide some balance. And whenever we’ve had players that can do that, they always help us, so we feel like this class does that.”
Four of the 12 incoming recruits were added in the spring to account for the transfers. The other eight signed in the fall. You can read about them HERE.
If there was no pandemic, Arizona soccer’s staff would be traveling to different camps and events evaluating 2022 recruits right now. Instead, those prospects have been emailing highlights and game tape to college coaches, who aren’t allowed to correspond until June 15.
“So that’s been helpful,” Amato said. “And the 2021 class, we’re still looking to fill some spots there and we’ve been able to use this time to really dig into getting to know them more via Zoom via phone calls, to get references from guidance counselor’s or academic advisors or high school and club coaches. And then that class has been utilizing virtual tours on campus and some stuff virtually that we’ve been sharing about our program so that they learn more about us and we learn more about them. We just haven’t been able to do it in person.”
- Kayden Heinrich is the latest addition to Arizona’s signing class. The forward from Huntington Beach High School and Strikers FC was originally committed to UC Davis. The other late adds were forward Jordan Hall, defender Jasmine Young and goalkeeper Sami Hauk. Hauk was originally an Oklahoma commit.
- Arizona also added sophomore defender Jordyn Schulte as a walk-on. The Chandler native was the 2018 Hamilton High School Girls Soccer Player of the Year.
- The Wildcats may still add some talent via the transfer portal. “We’re looking at some players, talking to some players and just seeing if it’s a good fit for them and a good fit for us,” Amato said. “Obviously we have 12 coming in that we feel really good about.”
- Junior Iliana Hocking recently underwent a hip procedure but Amato said she will be ready for the start of the season, whenever that may be. A tenacious midfielder, Hocking was a backup in her first two seasons and will be a strong candidate to start in 2020. She missed the match vs. UTEP. “She’s going through [physical therapy] and is in a good place,” Amato said.