Cali soccer elites make recruiting tough on ASU, UA

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                </div>  It’s become a tough recruiting pitch for Arizona’s Pac-12 schools when being compared with women’s soccer programs in California: “Hey, girls, come play soccer at our school and you can […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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It’s become a tough recruiting pitch for Arizona’s Pac-12 schools when being compared with women’s soccer programs in California:

“Hey, girls, come play soccer at our school and you can help us compete for fifth place.”

That’s about what it has come to over recent years.  The four California schools in the Pac-12 are the favorites to finish at the top of the conference again this season: 1) Stanford 2) UCLA 3) California, and 4) Cal.

The fearsome foursome finished last season in four of the top six spots, and in the two years prior to that they took three of the four top finishes.  The best result for an Arizona school during that time was a tie for fourth that Arizona managed in 2015.

Stanford won the last two Pac-12 Championships and are favored again this year to win it all.  The Cardinal have won six of the last eight conference titles and show no signs of slowing down to wait for the rest of the conference to begin catching up.

Stanford is ranked No. 2 nationally in the United Soccer Coaches preseason poll, followed by the Trojans at No. 3 and the Bruins at No. 9.  Talk about a Murderers’ Row to have to face – without even getting out of your own conference!

And California, which has made 13 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, will be playing with a recruiting class ranked third in the nation.

Meanwhile, Arizona State and University of Arizona are just hoping to put together winning seasons – something that didn’t happen last year.  The Wildcats finished the 2016 season with a 9-9-1 record overall and 4-7 in the Pac-12 for seventh place.  ASU limped to the finish line with six wins overall and a 1-9-1 conference record that left them resting uncomfortably in the Pac-12 cellar.

The Sun Devils enjoyed a few good years under Kevin Boyd, including a huge upset of then-No. 2 Stanford in 2013 and a near-upset of then-No. 1 UCLA the following year after taking the game into double overtime.  But the last few years have been inconsistent at best, weakened by graduation losses and plagued with injuries   Under Boyd, the Devils made just four NCAA Tournament appearances in 10 years.

This season, Graham Winkworth has been given the reins to the program following Boyd’s resignation last March. Winkworth spent the last four years at South Alabama, where he turned that mid-major program into a national contender, guiding the Jaguars to a conference title each year and taking his teams to the NCAA Tournament three times.

He will have eight returning starters to work with this season, including goalkeeper Megan Delaney, who was in net for two of the team’s four shutouts.  His defense will be anchored by seniors Taylor Coon and Madison Stark and his offense will be led by seniors Jessica Raybe and Jazmarie Mader, the team’s top scorers from last year.

Despite all that, ASU is picked to finish 11th in the conference.

Arizona will be under the guidance of head coach Tony Amato, who will be starting his fifth season at the helm.  In just his second year, his team set a new school record by posting 359 shots and compiled the second-most season wins in program history by going 11-8-2.  He broke that mark the next year by finishing 14-6-2, a season in which they made it to No. 15 in the national polls at one point.

Last year’s preseason poll had the Cats projected to finish the season in sixth place in the Pac-12, as well as a No. 20 national preseason ranking, only the second time in program history that an Arizona soccer team has received a preseason Top 25 ranking; the other time was 2006 when they entered the season ranked No. 17.

But this year they get far less respect with a No. 9 slot on the conference list and no national ranking.  That’s a little surprising since the Cats return seven starter from last year’s squad, including scoring leader, midfielder Gabi Stoian, and starting goalkeeper, Lainey Burdett.

Stoian is a local favorite, coming out of Pinnacle High School in Phoenix where she was named the 2014 Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year.

She will be an experienced leader as a senior this season.  Stoian played in all 19 games last season and finished the year with six goals, five assists, and 17 points.  Burdett, a sophomore, got a late start after an illness kept her out of the first three games, but posted a goals-against average of 1.16, 59 saves, and seven shutouts – which ties her for third in program history for single-season shutouts and brings her career total to 10 to put her in fourth all-time in that category.

The other returning starters this year include midfielders Cali Crisler and Kennedy Kinenker, forward Charlotte Brascia, and defenders Samantha Falasco and Brandi Park.  Crisler, Brascia, and Park are seniors.

Amato’s success with the program should also have carried a little weight in the predictions.  He has managed continual improvement during his four years as Arizona’s head coach.  His 43 wins are the most of any coach in a four-year stretch and he has taken the Cats to two NCAA Tournament appearances, advancing to the Sweet 16 in his third season.  Amato has accounted for half of the program’s four tournament appearances in the history of the program.

Arizona won both of its preseason games and will open the regular schedule tomorrow on the road against Oklahoma. ASU, winner of its only preseason contest, will host Ohio State in the Devils’ opener.