Column: Wildcats prove they can be Pac-12 title contender
Midfielder Alexa Montgomery (20) pushes the ball down the field to the Stanford goal Sunday, Oct. 4. The Wildcats lost 3-2.
The Wildcats walked off the field with faces of despair as Stanford celebrated a game-winning goal after a period of extra time.
The ‘Cats battled with the fifth-ranked team in the country for 102 minutes, and were a goal away from capturing the best win in program history, but instead came away empty handed.
“We were expecting it to be a hard game, but we gave it our all, and it’s disappointing that it didn’t go our way,” said Arizona forward Gabi Stoian.
It was a heartbreaking defeat, yet at the same time, the team’s dissatisfaction also displays the transformation that Arizona soccer is currently going through.
For a program that had lost nearly two-thirds of its games and nearly 80 percent of its conference games coming into this season, taking a top-five team into overtime would seem to be a noteworthy accomplishment in its own right.
“I think it’s changed in the fact that, maybe years ago, if you have a losing team, they look at that as a win,” said Arizona head coach Tony Amato.
Since Amato took over as the head coach in 2013, however, Arizona is not what one would consider a losing team. The team has compiled a 28-17-7 record in the past three years while improving each season. The program’s expectations, especially from the players, have noticeably risen from what they were just a few years ago.
“We went extra time with Stanford, but I don’t know if you saw them walking off. They had a lot of long faces and were extremely disappointed,” Amato said. “They feel like they lost, … and that tells me more about our team than anything else.”
No longer do Arizona’s players feel as though they are underdogs content with just being competitive.Rather, they now believe they can beat anybody at any time.
“We can play with anybody, and so even though it is Stanford, and they are a great team, we’re not scared. We’re not going to back down,” said Arizona midfielder Jaden DeGracie.
It’s one thing to say that, and it’s another to prove it. So far the Wildcats have.
Just this season, the ‘Cats have come away with two victories against teams that are currently ranked in the top 25: Washington and Santa Clara. Plus, they beat Cal, which is no longer ranked, but was No. 23 when they faced Arizona.
They’ve also forced a tie against No. 13 Texas Tech, and of course, just went step-for-step with No. 5 Stanford for 102 minutes.
The strong play has resulted in the program not only gaining local attention—each home game draws a stadium-filling crowd—but national recognition as well. The team has jumped up to No. 15 in the latest NSCAA Coaches Poll and is No. 11 in the country in RPI.
As such a highly ranked team, the Wildcats will start to see their opponents going all out to take them down, similar to what Arizona’s basketball program faces when it hits the road.
In Friday’s game against Cal, for example, the Golden Bears changed their formation to counter Arizona’s style of play. Amato said it’s unusual for opposing teams to significantly change their game plan as Cal did, but ultimately he sees it as a sign of respect.
“It’s a compliment,” he said.
Indeed it is. It’s yet another sign of the program’s rise to prominence.
The program is no longer a bottom-feeder in the Pac-12. Instead, it has become a program that should be able to compete year-in and year-out for a conference title. The team’s motto is “leave a legacy,” and given the success it’s having, that’s exactly what it’s doing.