By Brett Fera
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, November 4, 2004
Arizona women's soccer coach Dan Tobias was all smiles at yesterday's impromptu media gathering, with video cameras directed his way and microphones lying in wait to get a little insight into the UA athletic landscape's most surprising, if not impressive, team.
And why shouldn't he be?
His Wildcats have won 14 of 18 games, jumped into the nation's top 10 with a win Sunday over then-No. 5 UCLA and is on track to win the program's first-ever conference crown, barring a knockdown by this season's Pacific 10 Conference's bottom feeders, last-place Oregon tomorrow and ninth-place Oregon State Sunday.
His players, both newcomers and veterans, have not only created an offense that can finally finish off its opponents - Tobias' 2003 squad lost or tied nine games by a goal or less - but has solidified a defense that's been able to shut down three top-10 teams. Entering this season, Arizona had never defeated a top-25 team.
It's easy to believe UA athletics director Jim Livengood's sentiment that he knew Tobias was a winner, especially after he plucked the former Washington State coach away from the Cougars right after winning the 2002 Pac-10 Coach of the Year award.
But it's even easier to side with Livengood when he says he never could have predicted a turnaround of a team - one that had never won more than eight games overall and two in conference in a season - to come this soon.
"I knew he was a great coach and he'd turn things around, but to take it to a level like this is really impressive," Livengood said, adding that he figured a couple of seasons and a recruiting class or two later would have been ample time to analyze the payoff.
Veterans get offensive, freshman dominate 'D'
It's tough to determine what's more impressive.
Is it the fact Tobias has used a defense composed of almost entirely freshmen?
Or how about the truth that field-savvy veterans have dominated Arizona's offensive attack?
Smart money goes with the fact he's been able to balance the two together, creating one of the conference's, if not the entire nation's, most dangerous top-to-bottom teams.
Junior Mallory Miller (five goals, 19 points), senior Candice Wilks (six goals, 16 points), junior Jennifer Klein and senior Vanesha Bailey make up four of the top six spots on the UA scoring list. The other two spots are held by junior Nikki David and senior Kamaya Damwijk, whose six goals are tied with Miller for the team lead. Damwijk walked on after earning national recognition while playing for the UA club team the past few seasons.
"The credit goes to the work those guys are willing to put in," Tobias said. "Yeah, Candice is a returning first-team All-Pac-10 striker, but she works very hard outside the team training environment."
On the other side of the ball, freshman goalkeeper McCall Smith - this week's Pac-10 Player of the Week and a member of Soccer America's national Team of the Week - and freshmen defenders Kaity Heath and Claire Bodiya aren't playing like newcomers at all, backstopping a defensive unit that's allowed just nine goals in 18 games this season, including posting 10 shutouts.
It also helps to have senior star Lindsey Peeples, said by some to be the best player overall on the UA roster, right by their side.
To put it in perspective, Arizona's best defensive showing before this season came in 1997, when opponents managed just 31 goals in 20 games.
The Wildcats' on-field layout has been a near-mirror image itself, even if that mirror could probably only be found in a funhouse.
A corps of primarily veterans with one newcomer on offense, meshed with a group of nearly all freshmen and one senior on defense, has pushed this year's Wildcat team further than even Tobias could have imagined.
"The team will tell you I don't use the word 'winning' when we're playing," Tobias said. "We talk about high-level performance and doing the things you're supposed to do to get the results that you want."
No. 10 ranking puts Cats among select company
Florida won the 1998 NCAA women's soccer national championship, while Notre Dame took the title in 1996. Santa Clara was crowned in 2001, Portland followed suit a year later, and North Carolina has 17 titles, most recently winning the Women's College Cup last December.
These five schools have accounted for all but one of the last 21 national titles, with George Mason winning in 1985.
What can that possibly have to do with the upstart Wildcats?
With Arizona's entry into the Soccer America top 10 this week, those schools are five of the nine teams ahead of the Wildcats in the weekly magazine's national poll, with the UA listed as the first of five Pac-10 teams ranked in the nation's top 20.
"If you look at the rankings and you see it, in that moment you're thrilled and it's awesome, something that a lot of us have been waiting for," said Klein, a co-captain this season. "But it's something that you stress as a team that we don't want to get wrapped up in, and we don't want to read into it."
"It's been working for us so far to take it game by game."
After this weekend, game by game is no longer just rhetoric.
It's a way of life on the road to the NCAA Women's College Cup.
"We had everybody after about a week of preseason write down three team goals and three individual goals," Tobias said, "and the majority of the team wrote down 'make the NCAA tournament.'
"That goal of making the NCAA tournament was theirs."