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‘It’s kind of like you’re going insane’: Arizona soccer players adjusting to new normal

Jada Talley
Mike Christy/Arizona Athletics

These days, Jada Talley’s schedule looks something like this:

  • Wake up at dawn.
  • Drive to Mulcahy Stadium or the Davis Center for a 7:15 training session.
  • Grab a meal at Bear Down Kitchen.
  • Drive back to her apartment.
  • Kill hours and hours of time.

“You’re home by 10:30 and then it’s kind of like, OK, we’re not going to school, I don’t have anything to do,” she said. “So it’s either get ahead in school or find a hobby because that’s just where we’re at right now.”

Sewing is Talley’s new pastime. She customizes jeans and has even sold a few pairs. Talking about them was one of the few times she smiled during a 20-minute interview.

“It’s kind of like you’re going insane because you’re re-living the same day over and over and over again,” she said.

If this was a normal fall, Arizona soccer season would be in full swing right now and Talley would be blazing past defenders in pursuit of UA’s all-time scoring record. She’s 15 goals shy as she enters her senior season.

This fall, the only thing the Wildcats are playing is the waiting game.

The coronavirus pandemic has postponed their season until January at the earliest. It might not start until March. It could get canceled altogether.

Nobody knows, and the uncertainty is weighing on them.

“That’s the issue,” Talley said. “When there’s no games being played, and you’re confined to your house, you kind of have nothing to look forward to in a way.”

Not even the other aspects of college life. Classes are fully online and players are cautioned to stay away from social settings that could put them at risk of infection. As Talley put it, that means no trips to Topgolf or the movies.

If players do leave their homes, they are strongly advised to stay outside, wear a mask, keep their distance and, ideally, only mingle with their roommates.

Junior midfielder Iliana Hocking said they have done a “really good job” following the protocols and aren’t afraid to hold each other accountable.

“I mean, we’ve only had one positive test and that was before we even got here,” she said.

Talley said the players need to lean on each other during these tough times because “we’re the only ones who know what we’re going through.”

Still, they have only been able to hang out as a team once since they arrived in Tucson in early August. They did yoga at Mulcahy Stadium.

Other than that, they only see each other at their physically-distant training sessions and biweekly virtual team meetings.

“We do want to hang out as a team together and all that, but right now we’re kind of scared,” Hocking said. “We feel like we should only be hanging out with our roommates. I hang out with my roommates (Ava McCray, Madison Goerlinger and Sabrina Hillyer). We go to our neighbor’s pool because they’re not there, and they let us use it, so that’s one fun thing we do. But this first week of classes, we’re kind of getting our feet under us.”

Talley said she has FaceTimed and texted her teammates “more than I ever have.”

Among other things, they talk about mental health. That usually wouldn’t be a topic of discussion this time of year—the focus would be on the games ahead—but priorities have changed.

“I think this is the time to really take it upon yourself to see what else you can do besides soccer,” Talley said. “That’s where I’m at with it. It’s just trying to stay motivated to still want to train even though there’s no games.”

That’s difficult, Talley said, but the Wildcats got a boost last Monday when they returned to the pitch for the first time since March.

“I love it just because in California I didn’t really have any resources because all the gyms were only open for two weeks,” Hocking said. “I didn’t really have a trainer I could go to, so for me it’s more ideal to work out at the university because when you have people next to you, you’re pushing yourself harder.”

Contact drills are prohibited indefinitely, so Arizona’s on-field workouts include passing, spacial defending, drilling the crossbar with long shots, and soccer tennis.

“The most basic things you could think of,” Talley said.

The Wildcats have to take it slow after spending most of the spring and summer in quarantine. They practice three days a week and do strength and conditioning workouts twice a week, but have yet to lift more than 25 pounds.

“We’re all like, ‘oh my God, I just want some contact, I just want to play scrimmages’ because those are the most fun,” Hocking said. “But we do need to stay patient because we need to work on building strength and everything so we’re not getting hurt out there. And we need to get more fit to be able to do contact. I think it’s gonna come pretty soon. I just think we’re all like really antsy right now. We all want to work towards a scrimmage at the end of this semester.”

There are some silver linings in all of this. Hocking is one of several players who gets much-needed time to recoup her fitness level after it crashed over the summer. She has been hindered by a hip injury for months now and it flared up in the first week of team workouts.

Now that she’s gotten several training sessions under her belt, she’s feeling more like her usual self.

“I was doing a lot of longer distance (workouts at home), not sprinting yet, so then we came back started, sprinting and cutting and it would really hurt my hips,” she said. “I’m way more used to it now, and now I’m starting to see way more improvement because I’m usually really agile. And in the cutting I was like, ‘I’m getting smoked right now. I don’t know what’s happening.’”

Another bonus: Arizona’s freshmen now have months instead of weeks to adjust to Pac-12 soccer, a big deal considering they make up half the roster.

But Talley said that extra time only goes so far.

“They’re probably improving fitness-wise because we’re running, but I don’t really know if I see it as a benefit soccer-wise because I don’t even know what anybody can do,” she said. “I don’t want to judge them by a shooting drill because, guess what, I’m not the best in that, but I can shoot in the game. So that’s how I feel. It’s just hard. I feel like I haven’t got to see anybody. I don’t know what anybody can do.”

That’s how Talley describes this whole situation—as a bunch of Don’t Knows.

They don’t know when their next game is.

They don’t know when it will be safe to be social again.

They don’t know when they can go to class.

They don’t even know if their two best players will be on the roster this season.

Talley and Jill Aguilera, who was supposed to graduate in December, were originally going to enter the NWSL Draft in January after finishing their senior seasons this fall.

While every sign points to Aguilera sticking around for the spring, Talley isn’t sure what her future holds.

“Everything’s up in the air,” she said. “I’m looking at both sides. I’m talking to a lot of people, trying to figure it out. It’s not a decision to be made quick. I don’t think I should be making it on my own, either.”

It’s also possible Talley plays this spring and takes advantage of new NCAA legislation that would allow her to return next fall as a fifth-year senior. That’d give her the best chance to break the scoring record.

“So I don’t know, everything is literally just a waiting game right now,” she said. “I mean, obviously I do want to have the record because your name is going to be attached to the school for the time being.

“I originally thought it would help me in the long run draft-wise, and if it does help me, then I’m all for it. But I’m just saying I’m open to everything. I want to do what’s best for me, and if that’s leaving, that’s leaving. If that’s staying and playing for two more years, that’s staying and playing two more years.”

Full interviews

Jada Talley

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