With the changes on the back line since last season, Arizona soccer head coach Becca Moros knew it might take a little while for everything to come together on defense. In their exhibition at Pepperdine, that turned out to be the case.
“We got stressed in the back line,” Moros said. “Gave up two medium-to-soft set-piece goals, which is something we’ve been really focused on, and sometimes breaking down is the best way to learn and kind of prove a point. So, I think that those were really great learning opportunities for us and things that we can definitely get better at in a short period of time.”
There were some surprises on that back line. While it was expected that fifth-year Hope Hisey would be in goal, and senior Sarah Rice and sophomore Ella Hatteberg would be in the mix, sophomore Maia Brown and junior Nyota Katembo were a bit of a surprise. Brown did not play last season. Katembo played the midfield her sophomore season after transferring in from Portland. She is still listed as a midfielder on the roster.
Moros and the players saw positives on the offensive side. As they enter Moros’ third season at the helm, the team is far more experienced, in general. They also feel that they’re starting out in a stronger position simply because there are upperclassmen who have now played this system for most or all of their college careers. Moros thinks that will allow them to start quicker this season.
“The Stanford game [last season] was probably the first game where we saw our defensive press start to click,” Moros said. “We then had a little bit of one of those Sunday slow games against Cal where both teams are just kind of slogging along in the heat. And then it was USC where we kind of started to really fight and...recognize how good we actually were, and kind of consistently be able to put those performances together. I expect that we will start off in a much more similar place to where we finished the season last year, and then that will allow us to have that level of consistency. I mean, it’s 90 minutes and you’re looking for maybe one goal...you’re looking to just pull ahead. So, there’s a lot of minutes that you have to do the right things that...will hopefully not turn into you conceding, and so it’s really important that each of those minutes is competed at the highest level possible.”
They didn’t have that consistency against Pepperdine. Moros and her players agreed that they didn’t start out as strong as they needed to against the Waves. It’s understandable since NCAA soccer teams play their first games before they even start classes. Arizona had just six practices before playing their only exhibition of the season.
“We obviously just need to have more focus,” said senior forward Nicole Dallin. “I think we came out a little slow and they were a little faster and came out and scored right away. So, at halftime, I think we made our adjustments and came out stronger and had a lot more attack.”
Sophomore midfielder Sami Baytosh was a major part of that attack just as she was a year ago as a freshman. She scored the team’s only goal off an assist from sophomore forward Brooke Ahern.
“Sami was great last year as a freshman,” Moros said. “It took about half of the season for...us partly to find the best role for her but also for her to kind of be able to do all the things that she does well with higher speed of play, more powerful and faster players on the oppositional teams, and things like that...She’s just comfortable. She’s a soccer head. Her skills are among the best. She’s a great teammate and produces for other people as much as she produces for herself. She’s very opportunistic and a quick thinker. And those are things that I think were always there and have just become bigger and better parts of her game with the experience that she’s had.”
The Wildcats are still smarting from the way the season ended last year, with their loss to ASU likely keeping them out of the tournament.
“I just think the loss against ASU really just made us...want to come out this season and just fight and prove ourselves, because that was a really hard loss,” Baytosh said.
With Baytosh and the other young players getting more consistent, it could help close the book on last season. Their improvement in combination with the leadership of captains Dallin, Hisey, and Megan Chelf, and the other upperclassmen make things feel different this year.
“This is our first year with sort of a veteran team,” Moros said. “It’s the first year we’ve had significant upperclassmen. Great, great leaders and people who have played a ton of minutes. And so, I think that that puts extra confidence in the younger players when you have people like that around you. People who can solve problems quickly and in maybe a tricky moment on the field, so you’re not straining for longer stretches trying to figure it out and kind of losing momentum. So, it’s definitely an exciting year for us. And I think the spring was the first sign of that change and that initial 18 months of grind. We kind of finished those first phases of transition, and this last spring and then going into this fall, it’s been fairly different for us.”
The Wildcats hope those differences allow them to break through and get what has eluded them since 2019.
“I think we’re all thirsty for that playoff spot,” Dallin said. “That’s definitely been a locker room conversation. But I think every day we come out here and we’re looking to compete with each other and push each other. So, motivation is high. We’re very excited for how this season’s gonna go.”
Arizona Wildcats (0-0) @ Iowa State Cyclones (0-0)
When: Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023 at 4 p.m. MST
Where: Cyclone Sports Complex in Ames, Iowa
TV/Streaming: XII NOW on ESPN+
Stats: Iowa State Live Stats
Last season: The Wildcats went 8-7-3 overall and 5-5-1 in the Pac-12. They ended the season in sixth place in the conference. The Cyclones were 3-10-4 overall and 0-7-2 in the Big 12. Arizona defeated ISU 2-1 in Tucson to open the regular season.
This season: Arizona lost its only exhibition 2-1 at Pepperdine. ISU won both of its exhibitions, defeating UNI 2-1 in Cedar Falls and Minnesota 1-0 in St. Paul.
Moros says: “I think they’re gonna be a significantly different team than the team we played last year. They brought in a lot of transfers from some top programs. So new players who already have college experience and kind of know what it takes...not all freshmen coming in and it looking different for them. So, I think that could make it difficult for us to just predict exactly what they’re going to be like. And, obviously, the first game of the season has more variability and things like that anyway. They’re a good possession soccer team. They’re well organized. They have good team culture and things like that. So, I think they’ll be a stronger team than we played against last year, and they did cause us problems last year. So, I think it’s a great first challenge for us, for sure.”