TUCSON, AZ - Debuting at No. 17 today in the Under Armour MCLA Division I Weekly Coaches Poll, the Wildcats appear to be trending up in 2019.
After three coaches in as many years and consistently finishing third out of Arizona’s three MCLA D-I teams, the Arizona has started their second season under Matt Blamey with nowhere to go but up. After posting only two wins in their first season under Blamey, the coach knew something had to change.
Recruiting hard during his first year at Arizona, Blamey started fall practices with 30 freshmen on the team. Fast forward to the start of the spring season and only 16 freshman remained, losing a number of talented players to the lure of fraternity life, among other things.
“What I like about our team is that everyone wants to be here for the right reasons. It has been very rewarding to watch our team’s culture begin to change in such a short time," said Blamey. "We would love to have some of the freshmen we lost, but we really love the guys that we have. There is a sense of responsibility to one another that did not exist last year. The guys are starting to trust each other; they believe in what we are doing."
The Spring season started on a positive note, with a hard fought win over Santa Clara. That was followed by a one-goal loss to an unranked USC squad and a four-goal loss to a ranked Stanford outfit. It would have been easy for the team to allow doubt to take hold and follow last year’s path, which ended in an eight-game losing streak to close out the season.
Instead, the team picked itself up and defeated Washington to even its record at 2-2.
Which direction would this 2019 Wildcat team take? Duplicate 2018 and trend down, losing games they could have won? Hover at .500, winning games they should? Or would the team find a way to trend up for the first time in three years, winning games they should and even some they shouldn’t?
That is how the team entered their spring break road trip. Two games that were winnable on paper and one against last year’s national champion, Michigan State, which was sure to be a learning experience for Blamey’s bunch.
Well, the Wildcats wrapped up their spring break trip on last Wednesday and the team is definitely trending up.
The first game of the road trip saw the Wildcats play a back-and-forth game against San Diego State University.
The 'Cats looked to be following their 2018 plan as they fell behind SDSU, 4-0, to start the game. You can’t help it if the collective Wildcat Nation didn’t think, “Here we go again."
But this 2019 version of the team had other plans. As quickly as they were down, they were tied again at fours to close out the first quarter. By halftime, the team had built a three-goal lead. The third quarter ended 9-5 for the Wildcats, with wind at their back. The team then showed its youth, losing focus.
As quickly as SDSU’s four-goal lead disappeared in the first quarter, Arizona’s four-goal lead evaporated in the fourth. With the game tied and the team’s psyche in the balance, the 'Cats quickly regrouped without much fanfare and netted four straight goals to close out their opponent, 13-9. The team had won a game they were supposed to win: something they had not often done in 2018.
Goalie Wyatt Hill (13 saves) was awarded the Alpha Lacrosse Player of the Game by the SLC broadcast team. The team won just over 50 percent of its faceoffs and Arizona’s 13 goals were spread across eight different players.The defense kept their season long streak of holding their opponent to single digits and freshman Mason DePaola lead all goal scorers by registering a hat trick.
The following day, a confident Arizona team rolled in to LA to play Claremont, another team that they should beat on paper. They rode the wave of confidence after their SDSU win and left no doubt in this game. They went up by two goals early and never looked back, winning 21-8.
Junior Quinn Carrigan led all scorers with five. Freshman Greg Scholz, new to the starting lineup, added four goals with Luke Liljenstople and DePaola each registering a hat trick.
After two days off, it was time to face No. 4 and reigning national champ Michigan State. This could have been a reality check for the young Wildcats as the Spartans were coming off two losses and certainly looking forward to meeting the unranked Arizona squad to 'get right.'
As the game started with rain threatening, the WIldcats seemed unfazed by the MSU pedigree. Arizona struck first when DePaola scored unassisted on a hard dodge down the alley. MSU was quick to answer, scoring back-to-back goals from Keaton Mitchell and last year's MCLA leading scorer Bennett Osterink. The 2018 All-America selection would finish the game with five goals, a game high for either team.
Michigan State was up and Arizona had a problem. Their 2018 Achilles heel, the faceoff X, which had been much better in the two prior games, had reappeared. They had yet to win a faceoff. Michigan State was playing “make it, take it” lacrosse.
It was at that time that a theme started to emerge. Arizona’s challenges were being offset by what seemed like a performance for the ages by Hill. The netminder would post an astonishing 30 saves and a 75 percent save percentage by the time the final horn sounded. Behind Hill’s unbelievable performance, a well-executed zone defense and efficient Arizona shooting, the Wildcats were able to overcome their faceoff woes and weather a late charge by Michigan State for an 11-10 win.
Blamey and his team notched their first signature win of this new era of Arizona lacrosse. The team completed its spring break trip an improbable 3-0 after a 2018 trip that finished 0-3.
"All of the credit goes to our assistant coaches and seniors," Blamey said. "We have an unbelievably talented staff who care so much about our athletes. Coupled with this year's strong senior leadership, it's a recipe for success. I count my blessings daily."
The Arizona team is young and has a lot of challenges ahead of them. As was the case earlier in the year, there will likely be setbacks, but this is a different team than it was just four weeks ago. The team faces three top 20 teams in their last five regular season games. It doesn't get any easier.
Arizona will square off against perennial powerhouse and No. 13 ranked BYU this Saturday in Las Vegas. There is still a lot of the story to be written. But for now at least, the Wildcats are trending up.