Gabe Jillings

Gabe Jillings didn’t plan on falling in love with the University of Arizona so quickly.

The freshman midfielder arrived from White Rock, British Columbia, this summer as part of a top-10 recruiting class that figured to be among the best in program history. She came, quite simply, for the soccer.

“I had always wanted to play college soccer in America when I was younger, so that was always the goal,” Jillings said. “The coaches — Tony (Amato), Paul (Nagy) and Kate (Norton) — are the main reasons I came.

“I loved the campus and everything, but they convinced me because of how they want the culture of the program to be.”

The Wildcats appear to be ahead of schedule.

The UA is 6-1 heading into Friday night’s match against Cal State Fullerton. Freshmen like Jillings are playing a major role. The newcomers are responsible for more than half of the Wildcats’ goals. Jillings scored her first goal in a win over Houston Baptist earlier this season.

“We’ve all trusted the process,” Jillings said. “As a class and personally as an individual, I think every practice and every game we’re growing.”

Jillings’ confidence grows when the Wildcats win. The adjustment from club soccer to Division I play is a challenge for most true freshmen. Jillings admits that “sometimes when you’re learning new things, it’s easy to get down on yourself,” but said she has adjusted faster than she would have thought.

Freshman defender Hallie Pearson says Jillings’ abilities set her apart.

“She brings so much to the team with her playing style,” Pearson said. “She’s a smart player and has really good movement on the field … whether it’s a flick that starts a great attacking play or fluid movement within the midfield, Gabe always works so hard.”

Jillings says she misses her family, and faces many of the same issues that affect college freshmen. She leans on teammates who treat one another like family and play together like one on the field.

“We’re great now but we always have room to improve,” Jillings said. “We’re all really good at giving and taking criticism.

“Everything we say to each other is for the betterment of the team.”