Arizona soccer: Hannah Stevens' header propels Wildcats past San Francisco
69 minutes into a scoreless match between Arizona and San Francisco, the two exhausted teams huddled on the sideline to escape the scorching Tucson heat.
The officials stopped the game for a water break, and as the players cooled off, Arizona head coach Tony Amato used the break in the action to send a message to his team.
"It’s now or never," Amato told them. "It was feeling like it was one of those games where one goal was going to win it."
Before the break, the Wildcats created an opportunity for a set-piece and Amato felt — with just 20 minutes remaining in the game — that this was his team's best chance to take the lead.
As the players trickled back onto the field to resume play, UA defender Hannah Stevens was stopped by UA assistant coach Paul Nagy.
"Hannah, you have a flip-throw," Nagy told Stevens. "Go win the game for us."
And she did.
UA midfielder Jaden DeGracie-Bailey launched a flip-throw from the sideline into the middle of the box, where the 6-foot tall Stevens rose above the defenders around her and high-pointed the ball into the net to give Arizona a late 1-0 lead.
"I went out there and was like 'I'm going to win this and end the game,'" Stevens said. "And Jaden [DeGracie-Bailey] threw it right to me."
It was the first play after the water break and Amato's message had been received.
"I thought there were some individual messages that needed to be sent at [the water break]," Amato said. "And sometimes it’s more of a big message, and [Stevens] took it on her shoulders. [It was] a big play by her and that’s why we won the game.”
It was Stevens' third goal of the season and, like the other two, Stevens used her height to her advantage.
"It's not just her size, though," Amato said of Stevens, who had a black eye. "She's gritty and determined. I've had tall players before that won't do that and she does it. It's not just 'oh, she's tall' it's she's tall, she utilizes it, and she's tough and has a good mentality."
And Stevens' goal was all the Wildcats needed as their defense posted its fourth straight shutout en rout to the 1-0 victory.
Arizona's defense has been stellar as of late and Amato said it's because it found an identity.
"[They] take pride in not giving up goals," Amato said. "Sometimes you can get caught up in ‘get your backs forward and combine’ and ‘get balls in the box’ but we just asked them to take some pride in not giving up goals first and then we’ll go from there and they’ve done a good job of that.”
It's the Wildcats' fourth win in a row, improving their record to 5-1-1 on the season. Arizona also swept the annual Arizona Cats Classic, since it beat Northern Illinois on Friday night in its first game of the two-game tournament.
"I think you have to give credit to winning both games," Amato said. "We have four straight wins, four straight shutouts so we're happy with that. I don't think we were at our peak ultimate performance all weekend but the other teams are trying to win too and it’s difficult. I gave all the girls a lot of credit for finding a way to win, but we know we have to get better moving forward.”
Arizona has just one more game before Pac-12 Conference play starts — a home game against the Oklahoma Sooners (5-2-1).
With the conference schedule approaching, it's important for the Wildcats to compile as many wins as possible before it begins.
“Every win matters," Amato said. "Wins are hard to find in that league, so winning in our home-field in the Cats Classic is pretty important to the final win total at the end of the year when it comes to RPI and making the tournament.”
The Wildcats will have another chance to add to their win total against the Sooners on Friday Sept. 16 at Mulcahy Stadium.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
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