For a while there, things felt normal for Arizona soccer. Too normal. They went the first month of the season without having any games get canceled or any players being held out due to the coronavirus.
Their luck ran out Tuesday when Washington State coach Todd Shulenberger shared some ominous news about Sunday’s match.
“At Tuesday at 4, we’re about to practice and he just said, ‘Hey, we may have a numbers issue,’” UA coach Tony Amato said. “And then by the time practice was over I saw that it was canceled.”
It was a painful dose of reality.
“I just wasn’t expecting it because we’ve had such an easygoing slate with COVID,” midfielder Iliana Hocking said. “We haven’t had any positives this semester yet or had to have anyone out of practice or anything. So it’s kind of like, ‘oh wow, we’re not immune to it anymore.’”
What stings even more is that there are no plans to make the match up. Amato said the Pac-12 isn’t planning to reschedule any games this season, though he wondered if that policy could change—especially if a game has major implications on the conference standings.
The Arizona-WSU game might. Who knows. The Pac-12 is uniquely unpredictable this season. Usual powerhouses like Stanford and USC already have losses. Stanford actually has two, getting swept on the road by the Oregon schools last week.
No one saw that coming, even in a weird year. The Cardinal were 48-1-1 all-time against those schools before that. It would be the first time they have lost two Pac-12 games in a season since 2013, but technically the OSU game was a non-conference match.
All the while, USC lost to unranked ASU in Tempe—a team they had beaten every year since 2014.
Arizona has never finished better than fourth in the Pac-12 under Amato, but anything seems possible in this COVID season.
“It’s an exciting twist,” Hocking said. “People are always like, ‘oh, Stanford is gonna win the Pac.’ And now it’s kind of nice to see that it’s really up for grabs.”
That kind of parity works both ways, though.
“It also means that anyone can knock us off and you could finish at the top or bottom of our league very easily in the sense of like, if anyone can beat anyone, it’s a big challenge week in and week out to make sure your team’s ready during a pandemic,” Amato said. “And I think a lot of the time it’s going to be timing. Like, when did you play someone? Whose players were available? Whose weren’t? Where were you? What was going on in your team at that particular time? That definitely feels different.”
Arizona (4-1) feels it’s in a good place heading into Friday’s home game vs. Washington. The Wildcats are coming off a competitive 2-1 loss to No. 4 UCLA in which they held the Bruins scoreless in the second half and had some chances down the stretch to grab the equalizer.
Amato thought Arizona did a better job in the second half of making UCLA uncomfortable on the ball, good progress for a young team.
“We always want to beat them, but I think on a brighter note, we hung in there, we can fight, we’re still really good,” Hocking said. “I have a friend on UCLA and her coach [said] that was a big win for them. So it’s also good to hear the No. 4 team saying that was a big win for them. And I think we’re just gonna cause a lot of teams trouble this year, especially with how aggressive and fit we are. Our attacking line is really solid. I feel like our defense is really solid too. We’re pretty athletic in the midfield.”
Arizona also has some extra motivation against Washington since the Huskies handed them a 3-2 loss in Seattle last season.
“Especially because we’ve had to wait so long to get these kind of redemption games,” Hocking said.
Washington returns several key players from last year’s NCAA Tournament squad, but is now led by Nicole Van Dyke after longtime coach Lesle Gallimore retired this offseason.
UW hasn’t skipped a beat, entering Friday 3-0-1 overall including a win and draw against Colorado. The Huskies have a 5-1 goal differential and 85-21 shot differential. The Wildcats have a 14-3 goal differential but only a 66-40 shot differential.
“The biggest thing that we’ve seen from them is that they’re really tough, they win a lot of challenges,” Amato said. “Where we lost the game last year, we made some mistakes to lose the game. If you remember, we were up 2-1 late in the game, and we gave away a penalty and then a free kick goal in overtime. But honestly, as we reviewed the game and the stats, we lost a lot of areas that are important to winning. And a lot of that has to do with UW having good players. And we’ve got to clean that stuff up. I mean, they’re very tough. They won a lot of balls in the air, they picked up second balls. And then they have one of the best attacking players in the country in Summer Yates. She’s a handful, so we are going to have to have an A-performance and we’re going to win the game.”
Unlike other talented forwards Arizona has seen, Yates is a crafty dribbler. The junior has two goals this season after leading the Huskies with eight goals and six assists last year. She is the first 20-point player Washington has returned since 2013.
“She’s really dangerous on the ball, and then when she’s off the ball, she just makes late timing runs and plays off the back shoulder of people where you can’t really think she’s there and then she’s gone because she drifts into the box on the late run,” Amato said. “She’s really good at some of that stuff and that makes it very difficult because she’s different than a lot of players.”
How the Wildcats fare against Yates and the Huskies will determine what they do Sunday to replace the Washington State game.
“Ideally, it would be great to play hard, win the game in 90 minutes Friday, do some recovery and a little bit of training Saturday, and take Sunday as an off day,” Amato said. “We probably need to take days off when we can get them this year during the pandemic, with all the testing and all the other things we have going on.”
Aguilera back on the attack
Arizona leading scorer Jill Aguilera said she plans to play Friday after being limited in the second half of the UCLA game with a leg injury.
Aguilera has been limited in practice lately, too, but said she returned to full contact work Thursday. She estimates that she’s 90 percent healthy, but it “kind of changes” by the day.
“We’re trying to stay as healthy as possible,” she said. “With this being a very unique season, it’s a little difficult. We didn’t get the three weeks that we usually get (before the season) to run and lift with Jim (Krumpos) and do two-a-days. None of that happened. Our non-conference (season) was very, very short. But I think that it’s all about the games, as it usually is.”
Amato said Aguilera likely would not have played at all against UCLA if this were a normal season. But because no games are guaranteed and each game carries extra importance because of the shortened schedule, it makes more sense to try to push through the pain.
“If you don’t play her in that game, and you allow her to get healthy, well very easily this weekend both those games could have been canceled,” Amato said. “It could be taken from us at any moment. so what are you really saving them for? And so we’ve just made the decision that if we can on the day have them healthy enough to play at a high level, then we’re going to do that.”
Hocking the ‘warrior’ now leading Arizona’s midfield
If there is anyone who knows how to play through pain, it’s Hocking. The feisty midfielder has an oft-injured hip, yet throws her body around so much that she says she can’t sleep after games because it feels like she “got hit by a train.”
There’s a lot of fight in her 5-foot-4 frame.
“Ili is just a warrior,” Amato said. “She’s someone that is so tough, she is really good in the air, she challenges for balls. She plays simple when she has it. But I think if you looked at her body after a game, it’s pretty beat up—bruised, cuts. She’s just a warrior in there.”
Hocking has an expanded role in the midfield this year, regularly playing all 90 minutes for the first time in her career. In the past, she was more of a role player. The junior is a leader too, serving as a sounding board for Arizona’s young midfielders. Amato likes how she and freshman Tianna Sidtikun are meshing so far.
“Even Tony comes to me or other girls come to me for my opinion more, which I really like too, just knowing that people do trust me and my opinion and me on the field,” Hocking said. “I also just feel like I have more responsibility whether that’s on the defensive end or attacking end. Because my role my freshman year was like, ‘you’re going in 10 minutes, you better sprint and win the ball.’ Now I do have a little bit more freedom sometimes. Like if I do want to attack or hold back, I feel like the coaches and my other players just trust what I’m gonna do out there and hopefully I’m gonna make the right decision.”
Arizona-Washington game details
- Match time: Friday, 6 p.m. MST
- Location: Mulcahy Stadium, Tucson, Ariz.
- Live stats: Stat Broadcast
- Live stream: Arizona Live Stream 2