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Arizona soccer on NCAA Tournament bubble after resilient season

Sabrina Enciso
Photo by Ryan Kelapire

No matter what happens on Selection Monday, Arizona soccer head coach Tony Amato says he “couldn’t be prouder” of how his team battled this season.

The Wildcats (9-5-1, 4-5-1 Pac-12) finished the regular season with their sixth straight win over Arizona State and a winning record for the fourth straight season despite a long list of could-be excuses. Such as...

  • They had a program-record 13 freshmen, eight of whom played major minutes and five of whom made at least one start.
  • Their season was postponed several months by COVID-19 and several players contracted the virus. Not to mention players and coaches had to deal with COVID testing and protocols all season.
  • They had a new assistant coach and volunteer assistant.
  • Senior forwards Jada Talley, Jill Aguilera and Hannah Clifford were often limited or held out of practice with injuries, preventing them from building chemistry with their younger teammates.

Even still, Arizona netted the third-most goals in the Pac-12 and posted the fifth-best goals-against average.

“All these things I could rattle off could be excuses if you had a bad season, but our team doesn’t make excuses,” Amato said. “We overcame it.”

Will they be rewarded with their fourth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament? Amato thinks Arizona has a 50-50 shot. That’s only because it’s a 48-team field this season. If it were the usual 64, he believes they would be a “no-brainer” for an at-large bid.

One well-known bracketologist isn’t so optimistic.

“A very, very outside chance,” Chris Henderson of told me. “They have bubble wins over Stanford and ASU, but eighth in the league is a hard sell. I just can’t see any team that finished in (the) bottom half of their league getting in with a 48-team field.”

Arizona’s résumé is highlighted by a pair of wins over Arizona State, which finished sixth in the conference, as well as a victory over fourth-place Stanford (the defending national champs) and a draw at fifth-place Colorado.

If recent results matter to the selection committee, Arizona went 3-1-1 in their final five matches, including wins over Stanford, Cal and ASU, three quality teams.

“A lot of teams wouldn’t want to play us in the NCAA Tournament with where we’re ending the season,” Amato said.

Should the Wildcats get spurned from the postseason, Amato will look back at some of the one-goal losses they suffered, like against first-place UCLA, second-place USC, seventh-place Oregon and 11th-place Utah.

“If we turn one of those around, I think we’re clearly in,” he said.

The good news is even if Arizona doesn’t get in, they won’t have to wait long to show the selection committee that it made a mistake. The 2021 season is right around the corner in August and the Wildcats could be much-improved.

For one thing, their freshmen won’t be freshmen anymore.

“The biggest thing is that they’d come in and they don’t necessarily know what this really is,” Amato said. “The level, how you have to learn to compete every day, the fitness requirements, how you have to defend, how you have to stay focused every second of the game. Everything matters and ultimately...they’ve got to learn how to compete and win. And I think when you look back at the season you go, ‘those players got valuable experience to learn what it takes to win at this level’ and that’ll be huge moving forward.”

Arizona could also bring back all four seniors. Amato said all of them, at some point, have expressed the desire to return next season.

That would be a massive development. Aguilera, Talley and Clifford accounted for 16 of Arizona’s 22 goals while Sabrina Enciso anchored the backline.

Aguilera and Talley were claimed by NWSL clubs in January and have pro aspirations, but have also noted how another year in college could help them. Plus, they only need nine more goals to become the program’s all-time leading scorer.

“I think when we get into the summer here, emotions will settle, we’ll see where everyone is, what their options are moving forward,” Amato said. “I think all four of them will weigh their options and I think very easily all four could come back. And I think very easily none could come back.”

Whatever happens with that or Selection Monday, Amato believes the program is in a good spot.

“I feel like if we don’t get in, we’ll feel a little hard done by it and that fire will be in our belly with a lot of players coming back for next year,” he said. “If we do get in, I think we’re capable of making a run.”

How to watch Selection Monday

  • Date: Monday, April 19
  • Time: 10 a.m. PT
  • Stream: