With continued success comes even higher expectations. That’s what Tony Amato, the head coach for the University of Arizona women’s soccer, is faced with as he begins the fourth season in his efforts to re-build the Wildcat program.
This year’s team will enter the season ranked No. 20 in the preseason polls – only the second time the program has received a preseason ranking. The other time was a decade ago when the 2006 team was ranked No. 17 to start the season.
It has been a steady climb since Amato took over in 2013. He posted nine wins his first season, 11 in 2014, and 14 last year. Prior to his arrival, the program had posted a combined 12 wins over the previous three years.
Last year’s 14 wins were the second-most in program history as that team rose to a No. 15 national ranking at one point during the season, and wrapped the season at No. 19. They finished 14-6-2 and made a run to the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
The one sticking point has been dealing with their conference foes. It’s a daunting schedule when you play in the Pac-12. There are four conference teams ranked nationally in the preseason – and all of them above the Cats. The other three include Stanford (No. 5), USC (No. 11), and California (No. 18).
Amato posted losing seasons in conference play his first two years, posting identical records of 4-6-1. But last year’s squad began to get some traction, finishing 6-4-1.
This year’s team will be tested well before they begin their conference schedule. The Cats will face off with Texas Tech, No. 19 in the NSCAA Coaches’ Poll, in just the third game on the schedule.
Amato was hired away from Stephen F. Austin University, where he won two conference titles and a couple of Conference Coach of the Year honors in his three years as head coach. In December of 2012, he took over a program in Tucson that had won just two conference games and finished 6-13-1 overall the year before. It was a program that had been mired in mediocrity for some time.
This year, Amato will have his leading scorer back as Gabi Stoian returns for her junior season. The 5’5″ midfielder led last year’s team with six goals, despite missing four games with an injury. She added eight assists to help her teammates, which is the second-most in a season in program history and best in the conference last year.
Stoian was recruited out of Pinnacle High School in north Phoenix where she was the 2014 Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year and finished her senior season with 24 goals and nine assists in 25 games.
The Oregon native was a big recruiting catch for Amato, who apparently understands the value of in-state recruiting. Ten players on this year’s team were recruited out of Arizona, which accounts for about one-third of the roster.
One of those locals, defender Hannah Stevens, was third on the scoring list last year. She attended Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, where she was a first-team all-state selection. Her four goals tied Paige Crouch, a forward from California.
And Jaden DeGracie-Bailey, who played at Highland High School in Gilbert, scored two goals, but also was second on the assist list with seven, right behind Stoian’s eight. While at Highland, she was named Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year twice.
Those three will be keys to the Wildcat offense this season, but will also provide senior leadership.
When you consider the returning talent, it’s easy to see why expectations are so high for the coming season.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)