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Get to know Arizona soccer’s returners: Jill Aguilera

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

We will be profiling Arizona soccer’s returning players before they return to campus. The previous renditions can be found here. Next up: redshirt senior Jill Aguilera.

You should know who Jill Aguilera is by now. She’s not only one of Arizona’s best scorers, she’s been in the program for a long, long time.

“I’m the grandma on the team,” she said.

After netting 105 goals in four years at Woodside High School in Northern California, Aguilera redshirted as a freshman at Arizona after tearing her ACL just days before the 2016 season opener.

Since then, she’s done nothing but improve, raising her scoring totals from two goals in 2017, to four goals in 2018, to nine goals in 2019, second-most on the team.

The left-footed forward enters the 2020 season (whenever it starts) as just Arizona’s second fifth-year player in the last decade.

That’s good news for Arizona soccer fans.

“When she gets on the field, everyone in the stands, you can feel the vibe on the bench, she’s definitely someone that’s exciting to watch,” said redshirt freshman Sabrina Hillyer. “Obviously her left foot is scary and it’s strong and she has a great strike.”

I spoke to Aguilera about returning for a fifth season earlier in the offseason and why that’s critical for a program that is bringing in 13 freshmen. And last season I wrote about how far she’s come since her ACL injury.

Now it’s time to get to know even more about Aguilera, so here’s a Q&A with the redshirt senior. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Ryan Kelapire: How has your career gone compared to how you expected? Obviously you had the injury early, but other than that.

Jill Aguilera: “I think it’s gone overall well. I definitely think that this past season is more of myself. Because in club, in high school, I was the one that scored all the goals and did all the work and I think my first two years back playing, I didn’t really feel as important or I didn’t feel like I was pulling my weight. But then I kind of looked back on that and I realized that not everything is about goals. And so that’s the mindset that I had going into this past season, and I think that’s what helped me—just putting my mindset on the team and helping the team in any way that I can.”

RK: Yeah, why do you think you’ve been able to improve every year?

JA: “I have never been the type of person to just get put in the lineup by Tony (Amato). And I think in a way that’s good. I always have to prove myself at practice. I’m a senior, whatever, that doesn’t matter to me. I’m still gonna slide tackle you, I’m still gonna press hard because in a second Tony could just be like, ‘Oh, she didn’t press hard on this, so she shouldn’t play or she shouldn’t start.’ So it’s me having that mindset of always going 110 percent even if it’s at practice. I’m never gonna hurt somebody purposefully, that’s very dumb, but I’m always gonna go hard on you and I expect the same from whoever I’m playing against, whether it’s on my team or not on my team. But I definitely think it’s confidence and a good mindset.”

RK: Is there anything you wish you could’ve told yourself earlier in your career that you know now?

JA: “The thing I would tell my past self would to be more confident in myself and not be so afraid to make mistakes. I often made more mistakes because I was afraid that I would get taken off the field. This past season I felt much more confident and understood that if I did make a mistake, I knew I would have the opportunity to make up for them. For example if I lost the ball, I would make sure I won it back.”

RK: What did you learn from your ACL injury, and how have you grown as a person and player since then?

JA: “I learned to never take anything for granted and not give up no matter how hard it can get. After getting hurt, the big question was whether I would be the same player that I used to be because ACL surgery can change the way a player plays, and I was determined to be same player and improve even more on what I’m best at. I see my ACL injury as a blessing in disguise because I wish I never got hurt, but it gave me the opportunity to watch the team, understand the game better, and figure out what I need to work on to help the team win games.

RK: What’s been your favorite moment of your soccer career so far?

JA: “I think probably this past season scoring against Stanford. That snapped their [shutout] streak. Only USC had ever scored against them in basically the entire season, so that was very cool, especially because I was in my hometown and friends and family were there.”

RK: How did you get into soccer?

JA: “I started pretty late. I started when I was in fourth grade. My mom got remarried, I moved to a new city (from Sunnyvale to Redwood City) and it was a predominantly Latinx community, so naturally they all played soccer. And so at recess and lunch I would be the only girl out with all the boys playing soccer. And one of my teachers told my mom that I should join AYSO or the rec league, and so I did one year of that, and then my coach for that just told my mom, ‘hey, there’s a club that’s looking for players, they’re gonna have tryouts, you should bring her, she could be really good.’ So that’s what I did. I didn’t really play a whole lot of other sports. I played volleyball in middle school, but I kind of just stuck with soccer and never stopped.”

RK: Since you started late, were you behind when you were getting into those upper levels of club, or did it just click for you pretty easily?

JA: “I really did a lot of extra stuff. That was, I think, what helped me keep up with everyone. Everyone else on my team had been playing since they were like 4. You know, really young. But I was left-footed, that was unique, and I was fast. Those are like the two things that when you’re young, you can’t really change. You can develop a lot other things, but those two things for me was what helped me stand out, which I’m always grateful for. And I spent every single summer working on my right foot with my coach individually at my elementary school right behind my house, and then doing extra stuff with teammates, friends, my brother. That helped me a lot to stay up to date with everybody’s skills.”

RK: Other than soccer, what do you like to do for fun?

JA: “Well, every season Tony has us do show-and-tell. And so what I did for my show-and-tell is I like to watch TV... because if I’m not playing soccer, I’m probably sore from playing soccer or lifting or something. I like to rewatch my favorite shows, so I’ve watched The Office like seven times, Parks and Rec like five times, I’m on Brooklyn Nine-Nine for the third time, I’ve watched Schitt’s Creek twice, New Girl twice. And then (former UA midfielder) Kelcey (Cavarra) and I go back and forth constantly, recreating and saying all the scenes over again. We’ll make jokes about it. We do it in the locker room all the time. It’s really fun to recreate characters. Like when we did our Halloween practice two years ago, me, Kelcey and Sam (Falasco) were (characters) from Masterminds. I also like to go on hikes with friends and I love to shop at vintage clothing stores and find stuff for myself and family. My brother has been a 49er fan forever and I found him a vintage 49er T-shirt before they redid their logo.”

RK: How have you been staying in shape in quarantine?

JA: “At [San Marcos High School] in Northern California, I know the coach of the high school team (Daniel McKell), and he has this skills net with little holes in it. So I do a lot of placement shooting and receiving the ball in the air—all types of different passes. Bad passes, good passes, hard passes, soft passes, and then finding a way to get it in the corners because that’s basically my job up top. … And then off the field, just the typical running that (strength coach) Jim (Krumpos) gives us and lifting. The gyms here barely started to open, but I’ve been doing a lot of bodyweight stuff, just grabbing whatever heavy stuff I can find in my house and using that because I don’t have a weight set.”

RK: As the only fifth-year senior on the team, how much pressure are you putting on yourself to be a leader this season, especially since you have a lot of new players and even a lot of the returners are only in their second season?

JA: “I try not to put too much pressure on myself. And it’s not necessarily pressure on myself, but I want to make sure that everybody has a good experience during season. I know it’s unrealistic that every single person is going to play, but I think as long as me and all the returners help the newcomers really understand how important this specific year is for them, because there are so many, to take it seriously, so it is harder for Tony to make a lineup. Overall that’s what we’re trying to do—play on the field, get as much playing time as possible, and I think the harder job that Tony has of making a lineup would be the best scenario for all of us.”

RK: What’s your early outlook for the 2020 season?

JA: “I think it’s going to be very interesting and different. But I think that’s what Arizona is good at. We’re good at being different and unpredictable, and we’re very used to having to deal with all types of adversity. So honestly I think we have an advantage over a lot of the other teams that we play because they’re used to having everything lined up perfectly. They have their same routine that they have to do before every single game or they have to prepare a certain way to be able to perform better. We as a team have a really good mindset to be like, ‘Oh, this didn’t work out, alright it’s game time, let’s just do it.’ So we’re very adaptable and I think that’s one of our best qualities and that’s what helps us win a lot of games.”

RK: What do you hope to do after college?

JA: “I’m graduating in December and then they’ll have the (NWSL) draft and I want to enter the draft. And there’s also international contracts that I want to get in touch with people when I’m allowed to, so hopefully something like that. And then if and when I do play professionally, afterwards I definitely like sports marketing, specifically digital sports marketing. Because I grew up in the era of where iPhones became famous. I didn’t have a phone when I was younger, so I feel like I’m part of that generation that grew up without phones and with phones, so I feel like I can use that to promote sports. And I have a connection through the San Jose Earthquakes, the MLS team. The guy that I talked to, he went to U of A, and he was really nice. It made me more interested in the field. So I definitely would look forward to that in the future.”

RK: How long have you wanted to go pro, what fuels that desire and what do you think you have to do to reach that level?

JA: “I have dreamed of going pro since I first joined club soccer. Even as the competition got much more difficult, I always kept that goal. I think what fuels that desire is knowing how difficult it is to go pro and how determined I have been since before I knew how hard it was going to be and to make my family and everyone who has supported me proud. To be able to play professionally, I need to stay determined and have a great season for myself and for the team.”

RK: What would you consider a great season from an individual and team perspective?

JA: “Individually, a great season is helping the team score goals. Whether I am scoring them, I have an assist, or an assist to the assist. Being as involved in scoring goals as I possibly can that leads to winning games is a good season for me. As a team, going to the tournament, hosting, and pushing passed the second round is a good season and we are all in a good place and are more than ready to achieve that.”