An unusual season unlike any other as collegiate teams around the world had to quickly accommodate to playing amid a pandemic.
The Arizona soccer team was one of those teams as they had to do their best to adjust to the unique circumstances while also bringing 14 new freshmen to the roster. Bringing in this many freshmen into one team is a rarity, however, head coach Tony Amato’s 2020 recruiting class involved an impressive crop of skilled players such as Ava Hetzel, Jordan Hall, Tianna Sidtikun and Jasmine Young.
Despite adding a plethora of youth to the team, the expectations for Amato and this squad were still high heading into the 2020-21 season.
The team was led by seniors Jill Aguilera, Jada Talley, Hannah Clifford and Sabrina Enciso. A core that has made three NCAA tournament appearances since joining the Wildcats back in 2017. Seasoned veterans that know how to win and lead by example. Due to their strong leadership, versatile skill sets and talented youth players surrounding them, many expected nothing less than another winning season for the Wildcats.
After undergoing the longest offseason in program history that lasted 341 days, Arizona finally returned to the pitch for its season opener on the road against Grand Canyon University. That 341-day rust showed early in the match as both teams came out flat. The score read 1-1 at the half after 45 minutes of struggle.
The second period looked like a completely different game as Arizona would blitz GCU for three unanswered goals in just 18 minutes apart. Their goals came from the likes of Ava McCray, Jill Aguilera and Jada Talley.
The most memorable moment from that match came when Aguilera scored on a 30-yard free-kick that should have been featured on SportsCenter’s “Top 10 Plays” segment. Right out of the gate, the Wildcats were 1-0-0 to start the season after an impressive 4-1 away victory over GCU.
Arizona would proceed to march to a 4-0-0 record after making easy work of UTEP, New Mexico State and NAU at home in their next three games. Arizona goalkeeper Hope Hisey recorded three consecutive clean sheets in the process.
Aguilera got off to a sensational start to the season as she logged in four goals in only the first three matches. She was already setting career-highs as her previous best was only one goal in the first three matches of a season. To add to her cause, she eclipsed another career-high in most consecutive games with a goal at three in a row. Her previous mark was two.
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The Wildcats secured the start that they were seeking, however, there was still some concern that they hadn’t really been challenged yet. They blew right past their first four non-conference opponents in which they combined to outscore them 13-1. Despite the team’s impressive outings in non-conference play, conference play was another animal as the intensity and level of play rose dramatically.
Pitted against UCLA in its first Pac-12 match of the season, it was interesting to see how such a young team would handle themselves against the then No. 3-ranked team in the nation. An early test for Arizona and especially the fourteen freshmen.
How would they compose themselves against one of the most elite teams in the country?
Turns out, Arizona held their own and gave UCLA a run for its money. After trailing 1-0 to the Bruins early in the match, Aguilera fed a good assist to Madison Goerlinger who proceeded to put the ball in the back right corner of the net to even the score at the 20-minute mark.
Despite Arizona’s goal, UCLA would answer right back just six minutes later with its second goal of the night via Mia Fishel. Her goal proved to be the difference as the Wildcats wound up losing 2-1 to the Bruins at home.
Arizona wound up getting shut out 3-0 to the Washington Huskies at home in Mulcahy Stadium in the following match. The match would go down as Arizona’s worst offensive output of the season as they recorded a season-low three total shots on just one shot-on-goal.
After suffering back-to-back home losses to UCLA and Washington, Arizona found itself at 0-0-2 in conference play and sporting a 4-0-2 record overall. They would then kick off a two-game Oregon road trip in hopes of putting an end to their two-game skid and getting back on track.
They were back on track as the Wildcats began their road trip by defeating Oregon State 3-1 in convincing fashion.
In what was an even match for the majority of play, the biggest difference was that Arizona was able to convert on their scoring chances while Oregon State was not. The match also marked freshman Ava Hetzel’s first goal of her collegiate career.
Looking to sweep their Oregon road trip, Arizona next headed to Eugene two days later to take on the Oregon Ducks. In a match that looked destined for overtime, the Wildcats would lose in heartbreaking fashion after a goal by the Ducks’ Jordan Wormdahl in the 85-minute mark.
After splitting their Oregon road trip, the Wildcats came back to Mulcahy Stadium a week later to host their rivals in Arizona State for a battle for the Territorial Cup. Ava McCray had herself a career game as she recorded a game-high five shots, two shots-on-goal and a goal that wound up being the difference in the contest.
Despite only winning 1-0, Arizona dominated every offensive category. They outshot ASU 17-8, led 6-5 on shots-on-goal and had an 11-2 advantage on corner kicks.
Arizona would proceed to hit the road for Los Angeles as it had a date with USC for its tenth game of the season.
Amato and his squad went on to lose this contest after a 76-minute goal by Penelope Hocking. This game mirrored the Oregon game as the Wildcats suffered yet another gut-wrenching defeat on the road in the last minutes of the match.
Arizona would quickly put their defeat to USC behind them as they went on to defeat Stanford and California at home in back-to-back games. This two-game homestand marked the Wildcats’ best stretch of the season as they delivered arguably their best performance of the season in the first game against Stanford.
The Wildcats knocked off the defending national champion in Stanford thanks to two goals by Aguilera, two assists by Talley and a superb performance by Hisey as she finished with seven saves on eight shots-on-goal. It was the Wildcats’ first win over the Cardinals since 2005.
Arizona would follow their momentous win over Stanford with a 1-0 victory over California in its final home game of the season. The win over California marked the first time in program history that Arizona swept the bay area schools in a single season, putting Arizona at a 3-4-0 in the conference and 8-4-0 overall.
The Wildcats knew if they could at least split these two games against Utah and Colorado, then they would have a good shot at squeezing into the NCAA tournament. Two wins would be even better as it certainly would have guaranteed a spot.
Arizona ended up doing neither as they tied Colorado 0-0 and then lost to Utah 2-1 two days later.
In their last match of the regular season, Arizona would go head-to-head with Arizona State. The Wildcats came into Tempe with a 3-5-1 conference record and an 8-5-1 record overall.
Amato and his team understood that they needed to win this match to have a legitimate chance of punching their ticket into the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats looked more than ready to take on their in-state rival as they went on to beat ASU 2-0 in convincing fashion thanks to Talley and Aguilera notching a goal each.
The win marked a sweep over ASU for the season and their sixth straight win against the Sun Devils that dates back to 2016. Arizona’s best road win of the season came at the most ideal time as this dominant performance was likely to get them into the tournament.
However, a 4-5-1 conference record and 9-5-1 record overall weren’t enough to get their names called on selection day, ending their 2020-21 campaign.
Did the Wildcats deserve an NCAA tournament bid?
Now, I understand the argument of why Arizona should have been selected for the tourney. They had four quality wins against Stanford, California and ASU twice while also logging two clean sheets over the Sun Devils and one over California.
It’s not every day that you beat a defending national champion in Stanford and then come back two days later to beat another formidable team in Cal. Not to mention, Arizona finished with a plus-12-scoring differential and outshot their opponents by a plus-39 margin for the season.
The selection committee must have taken all that into account, right?
I’m sure they did, however, the committee most likely felt more impressed with ASU’s resume despite having an almost identical record to Arizona’s. I’m going to take a wild guess that they were more pleased with their 4-4-2 conference record than Arizona’s 4-5-1 conference record.
Furthermore, despite having three quality wins — one less than Arizona — the committee probably felt that the Sun Devils’ 2-0 clean sheet over Stanford, a road win over UCLA and a home win over USC was a more impressive body of work.
Now, I won’t say whether I agree or disagree with the committee deciding to leave Arizona out of the tournament. I will just leave this up for interpretation.
Yes, the Wildcats got left out of the tournament for the first time since 2016 and only the third time in the Amato era.
As young as this team is, they still posted a winning record at 9-5-1 during the most unusual of seasons. They beat Stanford for the first time since 2005, California for the first time since 2017 and swept and recorded two clean sheets against ASU.
Star forwards Jill Aguilera and Jada Talley had another phenomenal season in which they combined for 15 goals and 10 assists and made up for more than half of the team’s scoring output. Hope Hisey had herself a great season that saw her finish with 62 saves on 74 shots-on-goal which put her at an 83.8 save percentage.
Make no mistake, losing Talley and Aguilera after next fall will certainly affect Arizona in more ways than one. It won’t be easy to replace two professional-level playmakers that can make such a difference on the pitch.
Regardless, Arizona will come back next year with a fire lit beneath them. This young team got a taste of what it’s like to win big games and being excluded from this tournament will give them added motivation.
The future remains bright for this program as they will be led next season by their foundational pieces in Ava Hetzel, Jordan Hall, Madison Goerlinger, Moriah Dunn, Ava McCray and many others.
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