Team of the Year: Soccer shocker - Cats win Pac-10 title

By Amanda Branam
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, May 11, 2005

When the 2004 women's soccer team's season started, the Pacific 10 Conference coaches picked Arizona to finish seventh.

After all, the team had eight incoming freshmen. Three of them immediately got starting jobs in their four-back defense, with another freshman starting in goal. Plus, the Wildcats finished in a tie for last place in conference play in 2003. The program had never bettered two wins in conference.

To everyone on the outside looking in, seventh place sounded pretty good for this 2004 team. At the very least, it meant some people thought the team would improve a little bit.

Outsiders weren't alone in this opinion, either.

"When I came in as a freshman, they were last in the Pac-10," said freshman defender Kaity Heath of her future teammates. "I didn't think we'd have much of a chance."

Then, the team won a record nine of their 12 games. Before the Wildcats knew it, they had a school-record 15 wins and a first-ever berth in the NCAA Tournament.

The program's first conference title, their first trip in the national rankings and 31 team or individual broken records later, the 2004 Arizona soccer team is the Arizona Daily Wildcat's Team of the Year.

During the season, some people began to keep an eye on this team, but questioned if it could beat ranked opponents after dropping two of three games to top-25 opponents, including a 2-0 loss to No. 16 West Virginia.

The Wildcat soccer team (15-6, 6-3 Pac-10) answered that question the first weekend of play when it upset No. 4 Washington.

It was their second conference win, already tying the school record for conference victories in a season.

That win gave them yet another program first, a national ranking, No. 24, going into Palo Alto, Calif., October 10 against No. 15 Stanford.

A goal by junior midfielder Nikki David gave Arizona a 1-0, double-overtime win.

After that win, freshman goalkeeper McCall Smith said she could tell the Pac-10 was in for a bit of a shake up.

"When we beat Stanford at Stanford, it was like, we are a good team and we are going to do something this year," she said

Going from worst to first in a conference in just one year is something tangible by which people can measure the team's turnaround.

But, David said, what changed the most was the team's mentality. Once that changed, the wins seemed to follow.

"When we lost to West Virginia, we didn't feel like they should have won. I guess that's the biggest turnaround right there," she said. "(Before) we would have probably been like, 'Well, they're a ranked team and that's why we lost.'"

Even though the Wildcats won a tough conference, they were not rewarded with a playoff berth close to home.

They had to play in Storrs, Conn., in late November, in the biting cold and snow. After being the spoilers all year, the Wildcats finally lost a game they were supposed to win, falling to Colgate 1-0.

It's a game the team isn't going to dwell on, said second-year head coach Dan Tobias, but it isn't going to forget about it, either.

"Looking back on that day, we played well. We just didn't score," said Tobias, who was named National Coach of the Year by Soccer America. "When I looked in everyone's eyes, their eyes said, 'Just wait until next year.'"