PHOENIX — The new-look Arizona soccer team faced early trouble in its first match since Nov. 2019, but showed it has the same resiliency that the program has prided itself on for years.
The Wildcats overcame an early road deficit by scoring four unanswered goals to beat GCU 4-1 on Thursday at the state-of-the-art GCU Stadium.
“It just shows we can fight through adversity,” said junior defender Ava McCray. “If something like that happens, it won’t tear us down.”
Three of Arizona’s tallies came in a short second-half burst, starting with McCray, who delivered the game-winning header in the 63rd minute. Senior Jill Aguilera, who assisted on McCray’s goal, netted a free kick just eight minutes later. A rocket from distance.
Fellow upperclassman Jada Talley added the finishing touches in the 81st minute by tapping in her own rebound after clanging a penalty kick off the post. It was her 19th career goal, sixth-most in Arizona history.
“We haven’t played in so long, so I thought it took us a while to get into the game,” head coach Tony Amato said. “We train at a high intensity and really compete at training, and you still can’t match that. So it took us a little while to settle into the intensity of the game competitiveness. And then once we got to halftime and it was 1-1, I think the team realized what it’s going to take to win the game and really started grinding it out, getting on the front foot and created some set pieces and were able to capitalize on them.”
Senior defender Sabrina Enciso helped fuel the rally by blocking a shot along the goal line after Hope Hisey came up with a diving save. It would have been the equalizer for GCU and exactly the morale boost they needed after blowing the 1-0 lead they took in the 30th minute.
Instead, Aguilera gave the Wildcats a 3-1 cushion less than two minutes later and the rout was on.
“[Enciso] did well to get back and do that, but the team did respond to just support and clap for each other and yell at slide tackles and Hope’s saves,” Amato said. “I was really proud of that because that’s really important as you go through the season, that the team is supporting each other. And it’s easy to celebrate goals. But what about all the other stuff? And I thought we did a good job with that tonight.”
They had no choice but to stay engaged. The Wildcats dug deep into their bench, using 22 players, including 10 of their program-record 13 freshmen. Three of them—defenders Ava Hetzel and Jasmine Young and forward Jordan Hall—made their first career starts. And while it was the veterans who made the key plays down the stretch, the newcomers contributed too.
Arizona’s first goal, which came just eight minutes after GCU grabbed the lead, was the product of a well-placed ball by Hetzel. She floated a long free kick into the six-yard box where it was headed in by a GCU defender.
It was ruled an own goal, but Megan Chelf deserves some credit for springing for the header and putting pressure on the GCU backline. The freshman was aggressive all night, later shoving away a defender as she made a run down the left flank.
“I just want to give a hat’s off to the freshmen,” McCray said. “It’s been hard with COVID and everything, and they’ve been here since the fall. Today I learned that we have no weak players. Anyone can come on at anytime and be beneficial.”
Arizona only won the shot differential 15-12 but made their chances count. That they scored all their goals on set pieces was especially gratifying. Amato said they need to improve their scoring margin on them this season.
“We told them that setting up for set pieces on corners is really important, and making sure you’re starting in the right spots, but the most important thing is the serve and then that you attack the ball,” he said. “And so if you get everything else wrong, if the service is good and somebody like Ava (McCray) attacks the ball, because she’s so good in the air, good things can happen. And Jill’s been spending some time on her service. And as a result, it paid off to give us a lead.”
That’s basically how McCray described the game-winner too.
“That wasn’t supposed to be my run,” she said. “I was supposed to go farther. ... It kinda came and it was floating there and I just tried to knock it in.”
The goal silenced a small but raucous GCU crowd, and sent Arizona players into a frenzy. The high fives, hugs and huddles are what Aguilera missed most during an offseason that was extended several months by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Hannah (Clifford) was saying what she really missed was being able to celebrate with her teammates, and I 100 percent agree,” she said. “I’m so happy we were able to do that four times tonight.”
They had to wait a long time to make it happen, but McCray couldn’t think of a better way to kick off the season.
“It’s so fun, especially in this stadium,” she said. “Obviously our field is great, but this is big time, with the stands and the field. This is the perfect setting.”
.@jill_aguilera's long free kick goal helped Arizona beat GCU 4-1 in their long-awaited season opener.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) February 5, 2021
"Hannah (Clifford) was saying what she really missed was being able to celebrate with her teammates, and I 100% agree. I'm so happy we were able to do that 4 times tonight." pic.twitter.com/qVNWKwqe5I
After falling behind early, @avamccray09's header proved to be the game-winning goal in @ArizonaSoccer's 4-1 win over GCU.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) February 5, 2021
"It just shows we can fight through adversity. ... If something like that happens, it won't tear us down." pic.twitter.com/WZJI8ITdlH
Hear what Tony Amato had to say after Arizona Soccer’s 4-1 season-opening win at GCUPosted by AZ Desert Swarm on Thursday, February 4, 2021