With Jill Aguilera stuck on the sideline, Hannah Clifford knew she had to step up.
The senior forward battled back from a hamstring injury to score her first goal of the season as Arizona soccer pulled away for a 3-0 win over NAU despite Aguilera—their top scorer—sitting out Saturday’s game with a leg injury.
In the 64th minute, Clifford collected a well-placed cross from Jada Talley at the far post and easily slotted it past the goalkeeper to give the Wildcats a two-goal cushion after Talley, their second-leading scorer, gave them the lead in the 27th minute.
Clifford leaped in the air and let out a primal scream after seeing the ball hit the back of the net. Not only was she proud of herself for fighting through an injury that kept her out of the last match, but also for keeping her head up after she failed to convert a couple scoring chances earlier in the night.
Two minutes before that, she clanked a long shot off the crossbar. Two minutes before that, she ran onto a cross from Ava Hetzel and fired a shot on net, only to see the NAU keeper slide over and make a difficult save.
“Coming back from injury, I was itching to play and I knew I was going to be on limited minutes tonight, so I felt like the time I was on the field, I really wanted to give it my all,” said Clifford, who had four shots in just 39 minutes. “The chances I got, I just felt the momentum coming, a goal coming, so I was either trying to put a teammate in or get the goal myself.”
Junior midfielder Iliana Hocking elevated her game too, knocking in a header in the 84th minute. She wasn’t going to let another opportunity slip away. In the 32nd minute, she had a clean look at a header but drilled her shot right at the keeper.
“I missed one over here, so I was like, ‘if I’m gonna get one goal this season, it’s now my time,” Hocking laughed. “We know Jill has obviously had our most goals, and when you lose someone like that we all need to step up.”
With the win, the Wildcats wrap up the non-conference season with a 4-0 record, a lofty 13-1 goal differential, and three straight shutouts. Hocking said they have a lot of confidence heading into Pac-12 play, which is good because a heavyweight home game vs. UCLA is up next. The Bruins are the No. 4 team in the country and made the Final Four last season.
“I think our veteran players know that it’s going to be a great challenge and a step up in terms of getting into Pac-12 play and knowing that the level of play is going to be higher, more intense,” head coach Tony Amato said. “The younger players have an idea because a lot of the people they competed and played against play in the Pac-12 and are on that team. So we know it’s going to be a big step up and a big challenge and we’ll be ready for it.”
Arizona started five freshmen Saturday, including three along the backline. That unit hasn’t been tested much since the Wildcats have dominated the ball to this point, but Amato believes they have been tested enough to know where the focus should be as they brace for a prolific Bruin offense.
He said earlier in the week that they need to clean up things like knowing when to pressure the ball or mark a defender when a ball is played out wide. Teams like NAU might not punish you for making the wrong decision, but UCLA will.
“It wasn’t like Hope (Hisey) had to make a ton of saves in those four games, but there were enough attacks that defensively we saw some things that we’ve been trying to fix over the last few weeks,” Amato said. “And obviously next week we have to be at our best offensively and Hope is going to have to make some saves. So we’ll have a really good sense after that.”
Besides, the Wildcats know they can hang with UCLA. They blanked them 3-0 in 2019 and drew them in 2017. Clifford was a freshman that year and scored a key goal in the tie.
“I think you definitely get hyped up for big games like that,” she said. “And looking back on it as a freshman, you go on the field thinking, ‘whatever time I get on the field I’m going to give it everything I have.’ That’s part of our identity as a team. We’re gonna press, we’re gonna work hard, we’re gonna make tackles. And in that game, and previous games against that team, we’ve been successful by playing that way.”
Amato said Aguilera, who was on the bench in uniform, could have played Saturday but the team is being cautious with her. She is expected to play vs. UCLA on Friday.
The Wildcats may also get Ava McCray back vs. the Bruins. The junior center back is week-to-week with a back injury. She has missed the last two games but was running sprints at halftime while the rest of the team was in the locker room. She would help solidify the backline, and her ability to win balls in the air would add another scoring threat.
Here’s Tony Amato on Arizona’s 3-0 win over NAU, how prepared his team is for No. 4 UCLA, and a positive injury update on Jill Aguilera, who should be good to go vs. the Bruins next week pic.twitter.com/blLqqaN4Ft— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) February 21, 2021
Iliana Hocking scored her first goal of the season, knocking in a header to help Arizona beat NAU 3-0.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) February 21, 2021
“Having four wins going into Pac-12 play gives us a lot of confidence.” pic.twitter.com/2VJJurrCCq
Hannah Clifford had a goal and four shots in 37 minutes as she battled back from an injury to help Arizona beat NAU 3-0.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) February 21, 2021
"I was itching to play and I knew I was going to be on limited minutes. So I felt like the time I was on the field, I really wanted to give it my all." pic.twitter.com/sjFJzTmuCM