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Get to know Arizona soccer’s returners: Ava McCray

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

We will be profiling Arizona soccer’s returning players before they return to campus in July. The previous renditions can be found here. Next up: junior Ava McCray.

Ava McCray could have stayed at Cal Poly and been a four-year starter and one of the best players in the Big West. The Northern California native made the conference’s All-Freshman Team after a decorated career at Davis Senior High School, where she won three straight division championships from 2016 to 2018.

But McCray wanted more, to see how she’d stack up against the top players in the top conference. That meant transferring to Arizona where she’d have to start from scratch in the Pac-12.

No biggie.

The 5-foot-6 defender/midfielder only played seven minutes in Arizona’s 2019 opener, but gradually emerged as a key rotation player and, by the end of the season, a starter.

The then-sophomore appeared in 19 of Arizona’s 20 games, making four starts, three of which came in the final four games of the season including the second round NCAA Tournament game vs. Penn State.

While McCray does her best work as a defender, she is also an asset in the attack because of her ability to win balls in the air. She scored her first collegiate goal last October at Washington, knocking in a rebound off a long free kick.

When she’s not on the pitch, McCray is, as one teammate put it last year, “funny, goofy, dancy, makes TikToks, that kind of girl.”

It’s infectious.

“I think Ava is one of the very best people to be on the team with because of her attitude all the time,” echoed junior Grace Santos. “And that doesn’t mean she’s always super cheery, but she’s always really funny and she always keeps it real. And I’d say we get the same thing every time she steps on the field. She’s there to encourage you and she also gives 100 percent the entire time. It’s never a question of, ‘oh, is she going to have an off day?’ You always know what you’re going to get out of her on the field and as a teammate, and I really admire that about her.”

The 2020 season will be McCray’s first as a returning player at the college level. Not coincidentally, head coach Tony Amato singled her out in the spring as someone who’s due for a big step forward.

More than likely that means McCray will start on the backline after the Wildcats lost two starting center backs, including four-year stalwart Samantha Falasco.

Here’s a Q&A with McCray, whose answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Ryan Kelapire: What did you learn from your first season at Arizona?

Ava McCray: “I was one of the players that came off the bench and slowly proved myself, but I definitely learned that I didn’t know the style of play as well as I thought I did. It’s very unique and different as a lot of people know. Because just being a defender, it’s usually like, ‘Oh, I have to defend, like whatever.’ But, no, there’s so much more. There’s so much more to it with the style play Arizona has. We really do all have to connect together or it’s not gonna work out.”

RK: What’s so different about the style of play?

AM: “You definitely can get flustered with the style of play and almost like caught up in it all. I got put in the midfield some times and I was like, ‘okay, even though the ball’s not near me, I need to be in this place so it sets up the defenders a lot better.’ Everyone just kind of needs to be in check and be ready to go no matter what. Always ready to press, always ready to cover.”

RK: What is the biggest difference about Pac-12 soccer?

AM: “I think that just there’s not a weak player on the field. And if they are weak, it was probably the best player in my previous league. The style of play is so much faster, the girls are aggressive, everyone is just in it to win it. I think everyone’s just at level a whole nother level.”

RK: What’s the next step for you as a player?

AM: “I hope to definitely be a bigger attribute to the backline since that’s my position I know and love. As long as I’m on the field, I’m happy, I have fun. Even if I have to work towards it again this year, that’s okay. But I think I can bring hopefully like a Sam Falasco role to the backline and hopefully can fill her shoes. I know how it goes now, so I hope I can help be a leader, help be another positive attitude on the field and lift people up.”

RK: When did you start playing soccer and how did you get into it?

AM: “I think I started playing when I was like 2 or 3, and I went to a little soccer camp and I absolutely hated it. I cried the entire time, I sat out. And then the next year I remember I came back and I loved it. But I always played a bunch of sports growing up. I never just played soccer until my freshman year of high school. I played baseball, basketball, softball, hockey, like every sport you can imagine. But I started when I was young and then by the time high school hit, I was like, ‘Okay, I think this is gonna be the sport I’m gonna follow with and try to stick to.”

RK: Why did you stick with soccer?

AM: “I really don’t know because I easily could have gone the basketball route and everyone wanted me to play basketball, but I just had the passion for soccer. And I just always had so much fun. People hate on defense. They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s so boring,’ but I love it. It’s the thrill. Like, we’re the last people on the field. It’s an up-to-us kind of thing.”

RK: Is there an achievement or moment in your soccer career that sticks out to you?

AM: “I don’t have a single favorite but one that sticks out was in my freshman year of high school, we were playing our rival team, St. Francis. There were only three of us (freshmen) on varsity. We have one high school in our town, so our sports are pretty good, like everyone goes there. I was a defender obviously then, and I got to go up on a corner kick. Our grass field was packed. The crowds we get for our college games, that’s what we got for high school. We were a big deal. And so it was a corner and we were up 1-0 and we hit the corner and I had a perfect little header. The coolest picture was on the front of the paper. And my brother was a senior at the time and he was on the sideline with the entire baseball team. And I just remember everyone was so hyped for me and winning that game. So that was like my little freshman moment that stuck with me.”

Here’s that photo from the Davis Enterprise:

RK: What drives you as a player and person?

AM: “I think what drives me is definitely my parents. They’ve never gotten on me about sports whatsoever and I think that’s why I’ve always been so passionate about soccer. My dad went pro in baseball and he always just said he never wanted to feel like he could have done stuff that prevented him from getting cut, so that’s what I go off of. I want to do all I can and if I get cut, then okay I know I’ve done it all.”

RK: How much does it help to know someone who’s been a pro athlete and knows what it takes to get to that level?

AM: “Like you said, I know what I have to do, how I have to act and everything to get how far I want to go. And I think it’s very cool because my dad can relate on a certain leveI. I love my mom but she didn’t play college sports, she doesn’t know that kind of stuff. And I think my dad kind of knows if I had a bad game, it’s like, ‘alright, we’ll leave her alone for a little bit.’ And then he knows I have to be the one that is going to push myself to work harder. Like, they can’t get on me. I’m too old for that.”

(Editor’s note: McCray’s father Justin was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 41st round of the 1989 MLB Draft and spent three years in the minors mostly as an infielder.)

RK: What have you been doing during quarantine to stay in shape?

AM: “Luckily for me my soccer coaches from club have been training a little group of us. Two girls that are on Stanford, a lot of teammates from Cal Poly, so it’s a good group of girls. We train like a couple times a week. So I normally get up and do that in the morning, then my summer class, just trying to stay focus with that, and then nothing else because in California nothing’s open here.”

RK: What is something cool or interesting about you? Like Madison (Goerlinger) knows how to ride a unicycle and Mariah (Dunn) does motocross.

AM: “I can do a lot with my tongue. Like the clover tongue. I can fold it. I have a very long tongue. Definitely not as cool as their stuff. Don’t know if I want that out there.

(Editor’s note: Oh well, it’s out there.)

RK: What do you want to do after college?

AM: “I’m a psychological sciences major. At Cal Poly, I was a kinesiology major because I want to be a physical therapist in the long run, and I was going to minor in psych there.”