The non-conference season is going how Tony Amato thought it would. The Wildcats are leaning on their veteran forwards as they integrate 13 freshmen.
Fifth-year senior Jill Aguilera scored both goals in Arizona’s 2-0 win over UTEP on Sunday, meaning juniors and seniors have now accounted for five of UA’s six goals during their 2-0 start. The other was an own goal by GCU.
“We knew we were going to have experience up top with [Hannah Clifford], Jill and Jada (Talley) and they’d find a way to get some goals in these first few games while we sorted out some other stuff, and that’s exactly how it played out,” Amato said Sunday.
“I thought it was a hard-fought game and early in the season it’s hard for it to look exactly how you want to look. There’s a lot to work on in our attack, set pieces but we prioritized competing, bringing intensity and energy, things we know it takes to win Pac-12 games. And we won both games while getting a lot of players in the games and I think we have an idea of where we’re at and we’ll build off this week.”
One thing they already knew: Aguilera is a dynamic attacker. The left-footer already has three goals on the season, giving 18 for her career, tied with Christine Keely for seventh-most in Arizona history.
In the 17th minute, Aguilera ran onto a high-bouncing ball from Iyana Zimmerman, noticed the keeper was cheating toward the right post, and slotted into the left side of the net. Four minutes later, she netted a powerful shot from the corner of the 18-yard box, showing the finishing ability that got her claimed by the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars in January.
Aguilera knows pro teams are watching her now, but her priorities haven’t changed.
“I’m not going to treat it differently than any other season,” she said. “We just have to keep grinding and scoring goals. That’s the most important part. To me, I don’t care who scores. As long as we’re playing well and winning, that’s all that matters.”
Sunday’s match looked like it was bound for the same result as Arizona’s spring exhibition vs. UTEP last February, when the Wildcats routed the Miners 5-0 at Mulcahy Stadium (which was also Arizona’s last home game). UA was on the front foot for the entire first half, holding UTEP without a shot.
But as the match wore on, and more Wildcats saw the field, the Miners were able to find some creases and even create some dangerous chances. All three of their shots and all six of their corner kicks came in the final 45 minutes.
That included four corner kicks in a four-minute span early in the second half.
“They were playing short in the first half and I think we were able to capitalize on that a lot,” Aguilera said. “In the second half, some of their passes got a little lucky, we were barely off by a step, and that’s still on us to make sure that we get there, but they were playing longer, they were getting some good flicks and I think we just have to tighten that up throughout the entire lineup. We took it back from them. We didn’t let them score. We didn’t give them any hope. There’s going to be teams who get good balls, good attacks and good corners on you, but you can’t let that deter you from the main goal and let up.”
Arizona rotated 20 players, two fewer than last game, including nine freshmen. Two—Ava Hetzel and Tianna Sidtikun—were in the starting 11. Sidtikun and the speedy Quincy Bonds both generated shots on goal. Hetzel, the only freshman who has started both games, has impressed at right back with her tackling and services.
“They’ve done a really good job,” Amato said of the newcomers. “We knew they were good players, but this is the hardest year ever to be a freshman. It’s hard anyway to transition from high school and club to college, but we’re in the middle of the pandemic, so they can’t socially gather, they can’t go to other sporting events and support the other athletes in our department. That changes everything.”
Hetzel agreed that the transition to college has been difficult, especially the emotional ups and downs that came with the uncertainty surrounding the season. She actually went home for part of the fall semester before rejoining the team in January.
“But just being back here is everything I could have expected,” she said. “The wait was so worth it. It almost made it better to be out here since it’s almost been a year since I’ve played in a game.”
While Sunday may have felt like a return to normalcy for freshmen like Hetzel, it was a new experience for Arizona’s returning players, who know what it’s like to play in front of a packed house. Fans are not allowed in Mulcahy right now due to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving only a handful of media members and staffers in the stands for Sunday’s home opener.
“Tony talked about creating our own energy and I think we did that really well today and Thursday and GCU and we just have to keep that up,” Aguilera said. “Some teams rely on their fans to amp them up. Of course, it helps every single home team, but as a team we have to learn how to make our own energy, hype ourselves up and still be able to get a good result.”
There was still one familiar voice cheering Aguilera on. Her mother Julie was one of more than a dozen fans watching the game through the iron gates on the north side of the stadium.
She, like Jill, is relentless.
“She’s coming no matter what,” Jill said. “She doesn’t care. She’s always going to come. Nothing is going to stop her. She was at GCU and as soon as we’re allowed to have fans, she’ll be here. We couldn’t have fans, so she’s out there. That’s who she is. She’s always there supporting me and the team.”