Can they make the tournament?
As the spring 2021 women’s soccer season starts to head into the final stretch, there’s one thing that’s obvious in the Pac-12. Graham Winkworth should be the leading candidate for the conference’s Coach of the Year award.
Arizona State was picked to finish last in the preseason poll, and barring something crazy, that probably won’t happen.
The Sun Devils sit undefeated in conference play with five games remaining. They’ve swept USC and UCLA for the first time ever. Winkworth and his staff’s efforts should not go unnoticed.
Following the winless conference season in 2019 and the global pandemic pushing the 2020 back, Winkworth wanted his team to be exactly that, a team.
Throughout this season, nearly every Sun Devil has mentioned that all the Zoom calls and team building has made a difference. Even after ASU’s second win against Grand Canyon, Winkworth said it himself.
“I’ve learned that this is a strong group of women, strong group of characters. Their togetherness is phenomenal. Some players haven’t played a minute, others have played every minute. They’re so supportive of one another and when we shout team first, maybe for the first time in a while, they really mean it,” he said. “They’re putting the team before themselves and it’s been wonderful. It’s an absolute joy coming into work and coaching with the girls and we’ve got a lot of banter. There’s a lot of jokes going on, we make fun of each other, they make fun of me probably more then I make fun of them but it’s great. I love it, I love that sort of environment that we can create and have a laugh.
“As long as when we step on the field for practice or on game day, when we cross that white line we know it’s time for business. I really enjoy the fun and having that type of environment around the girls because they’ve been fantastic.”
Winkworth has also managed his squad through injuries. Dai Williams, a major contributor from 2019, played her first minutes in the Sun Devils win over UCLA. Lucy Johnson, Vildan Kardesler and Isabel Dehakiz have all missed time during Pac-12 play. Yet, it hasn’t mattered.
Players like Cori Sullivan have continued to step up when called upon, and that’s a reflection of the offseason work to come together as a group.
The team is also very young. In the fall season, the Sun Devils will nearly have the same exact roster and if they can make the postseason now, the experience will add even more to next fall.
Arizona State’s RPI sits at 13 heading into its game with Cal. It took a major jump with the UCLA win. If the season ended today, the Sun Devils would likely get an at-large bid. However, the last five games will make or break those chances.
For the spring season, the NCAA Tournament will only take 48 teams (instead of the normal 64 that will return in the fall); 31 automatic qualifiers and 17 at-large bids. If Arizona State doesn’t win the conference, there’s little room for mistakes.
Arizona State hosts Cal and Stanford, who are more talented than their record suggests. Arizona is also on the schedule, and they are the only team that has beat the Sun Devils this season. ASU is winless against the Wildcats the past five seasons. Furthermore, there’s a trip to Boulder to face a good Colorado team.
Below is the rest of the schedule with record and RPI (through games Mar. 28):
4/2 Cal (4-3-1, RPI: 91)
4/4 Stanford (5-3-1, 80)
4/9 @ Utah (2-7-2, 142)
4/11 @ Colorado (6-4-1, 14)
4/16 Arizona (6-4-0, 38)
Can Arizona State make the tournament for the first time since 2014? That will be a wait and see. Regardless, this season appears to be the turning point in the Winkworth era and that should be recognized.