Tony Amato has checked a lot of boxes during his Arizona soccer coaching tenure. He will scratch off one more on Saturday when the Wildcats host Northern Arizona at 5 p.m. MST.
The Lumberjacks are coached by Kylie Louw, his former player at Stephen F. Austin and former assistant at Arizona.
“I’ve never coached against one of our former players before,” Amato said. “She was an outstanding player, and then she worked for us here. Just to have been through the whole process with her and stay connected with her and see her be a head coach, I think it’s really cool. And as long as we win the game I’ll be really happy.”
Louw and Amato still communicate on a regular basis, discussing recruiting and the mutual experiences that head coaches have. This week, they caught up to talk about the state of their programs and how important Saturday’s match is to help their teams prepare for their conference seasons.
Amato even helped NAU book hotel arrangements in Tucson and agreed to bump the game time up an hour so Louw’s team would have an easier trip back to Flagstaff.
The two first met in 2010 when Louw was a sophomore at Stephen F. Austin and the school tabbed Amato as its new head coach. Louw had come to SFA from South Africa, looking to play college soccer near her uncle who lived in Texas.
She initially drew interest from Oklahoma, but the Sooners’ coach recommended her to Stephen F. Austin, which worked out just fine.
By the time Louw graduated from Stephen F. Austin she had broken the school records for career points (96) and assists (42). She was so good that she played for South Africa in the 2012 London Olympics.
All the while, Louw was involved in the local soccer scene near SFA, coaching for the Nacogdoches Soccer Club and Nacogdoches Academy Soccer Clinic, in addition to giving private lessons. With an obvious knowledge and passion for the game, Amato hired her as an assistant coach when he took the Arizona head coaching job in 2013.
Amato said he and Paul Nagy did 90 percent of the coaching at the start, but Louw was still an invaluable member of the staff, essentially serving as the director of operations, which Arizona did not have at the time. That role entailed, among many other things, booking travel, recruiting, and working with the UA marketing and social media teams to promote the program.
On the field, Louw was living proof for Arizona players that Amato, their new head coach, knew what he was doing. She could demonstrate drills and offer credible words of wisdom.
“We had to have some buy in, we were changing things, and she needed to communicate to players that there will be a payoff,” Amato said. “And we saw that quickly in terms of we were above .500 in 2013, we went to the second round (of the NCAA Tournament) in 2014, went to a Sweet Sixteen in 2015. So there was a lot going on there and that was how we got her into coaching at the college level pretty quickly. It just fit for what we needed at the time and we felt comfortable with her.
“And then she was doing more and more coaching as the time went on, and obviously the recruiting piece. Her energy and vibe is big. She’s a big personality. And so with recruiting we asked her, ‘when we have visits on campus, use your personality and energy.”’
Eventually Louw reached her ceiling at Arizona and left in 2017 to become the lead assistant at NAU. Two years later she was named the head coach.
The Lumberjacks went 8-8-3 in their first season under Louw but Amato isn’t totally sure what to expect from them on Saturday. They have only played one game this season—a 2-0 win at GCU—so he doesn’t have much film to study.
He does know that Louw’s Lumberjacks remind him of his team in some ways.
“The intensity and the competitiveness,” he said. “Ky knows how important it is and what relates to winning. All the tactics and all the other stuff you work on don’t matter if you don’t compete. And she’s experienced that. She knows we pride ourselves on that and so I would expect that to be the starting point for her team on Saturday.”
Arizona recently announced a new scheduling series with NAU that will pit Amato and Louw’s programs against each other for the next 10 years. Previously UA and NAU had not squared off since 2015 when Louw was still at Arizona.
The Wildcats are 4-0-2 all-time against the Lumberjacks, but Amato expects Louw’s team to be extra juiced every time they face her former coach.
“Anytime an in-state team plays another in-state team, it’s on,” Amato said. “We always know that the mid-major is out to prove that they can play at the highest level that’s out there. And if it’s in an in-state opponent, it’s even more so.”
Last time out before Pac-12 play
Including NAU, Arizona’s non-conference opponents have a combined 2-9-2 record.
The soft schedule has enabled Amato to give plenty of minutes to his 13 freshmen, particularly along the backline. Defenders Jenna Studer, Jasmine Young and Ava Hetzel have all started at least one game.
Those reps have helped them adjust to the speed of the game and illustrate the difference between club and college soccer.
Amato gave an example.
“Defensively, there are times that maybe someone has a ball out wide,” he said. “Should you go out wide and defend the ball or should you mark the player in the box? Who is more dangerous? What is the more dangerous thing to do in that instance? And it may be in one instance to go stop the ball. And maybe in another instance to read the fact that she’s already about to serve it and you should stay with your player. ... In club soccer, you can make the wrong decision and you’re not going to get penalized for it. So you go try and stop the ball, you get caught in between, they find the forward and the forward puts it over the bar. That’s not what happens in the Pac-12. If you get caught in the middle, you didn’t deny the cross, and you didn’t mark the player, the ball will end up in the back of the net.”
The NAU game is Arizona’s last chance to improve in areas like that before they host No. 4 UCLA next Friday to open Pac-12 play. The Bruins are markedly better than anyone the Wildcats (3-0) have faced so far.
How prepared are they for that?
“We’ll be closer than we would have been without those (non-conference) games but obviously you can’t resemble UCLA no matter who you play in the preseason,” Amato said. “You don’t really know until you are in it.”
Senior forward Hannah Clifford and junior center back Ava McCray missed last week’s match vs. New Mexico State with injuries and could miss one more. Amato said Clifford is day-to-day with a tight hamstring and McCray is week-to-week with a bad back.
Clifford may play this week but McCray isn’t expected to return until at least the UCLA game. Both are key starters. Especially McCray, who helps fortify the young backline and is a scoring threat on set pieces. She headed in the game-winner in the season opener at GCU.