Early investment in soccer pays off for UP women as they capture national title
AUSTIN, Texas Ñ The University of Portland stood alone in women's college soccer Sunday in a state known for its independence.
The Pilots, representing a school of just 2,700 students, won the college's first national championship in any sport with a 2-1 overtime victory against defending champion Santa Clara, allowing everyone on the team and in the athletic department to breathe a sigh of relief.
'It's a pretty terrific feeling winning a national championship,' said Joe Etzel, the school's athletic director for the last 32 years. 'There aren't too many schools our size that get a chance to experience this.
'There's a whole lot of schools that are a lot bigger than us that don't have a national title.'
The Pilots (20-4-2) became the first team to win the NCAA Women's College Cup with as many as four losses. They are the lowest seed, at No. 8, to win from the 64-team playoff field. They won despite falling behind 1-0 in the second half of the final and then losing goalkeeper Lauren Arase to injury in overtime.
Portland rallied behind two goals from super sophomore Christine Sinclair, who continued to establish herself as the nation's most elite goal scorer. She tallied one goal on an amazing, curving shot that looked so much like a crossing pass that it fooled even the Santa Clara goalkeeper.
And she finished with the game-winner four minutes into the second overtime. Everyone on the Portland sideline had a feeling that the game would end as soon as sophomore midfielder Kristen Moore got past the Santa Clara defense and looked to her right to see Sinclair unchecked in front of the Broncos' goal.
'When I saw Sinclair, I knew I needed to get her the ball because she would get it in,' said Moore, who needed stitches after the game to close a gash over her left eye. 'When she scored, it made everything we've worked so hard for all season worth it. It's an awesome feeling.'
Sinclair finished the playoffs with an NCAA-record 10 goals. She scored 26 times this season against all kinds of opponents, something that Santa Clara coach Jerry Smith pointed out.
'I told my team, 'She's scored a lot of goals, but how many goals has she scored in big games?' ' he said. 'Well, she had two goals against us. I think that answered that.'
The University of Portland soccer program, both men's and women's, has been a fixture on the national scene almost since coach Clive Charles was hired there as the men's coach in 1986.
The school plunked down $1.2 million to build Merlo Field in 1990, jumping ahead of the national curve of building soccer-only facilities. The Pilots played at the NAIA level then but soon jumped to the NCAA.
'We made a conscious decision to invest in soccer,' Etzel said. 'We had the right coach, and we thought that soccer was a sport we could compete in with bigger schools, so we built a quality facility, which is still one of the top five in the nation.
'That looks like a pretty good investment now.'
With top players such as Tiffeny Milbrett, Shannon MacMillan and Justi Baumgardt coming through the program, Portland quickly established itself as a 'soccer school.'
The Pilots have reached the NCAA women's semifinals seven times since 1994.
But they didn't win it all until this year.
'When I came to Portland, I thought we could win the national title, at a time when the school probably would have been happy with success in our conference,' Charles said. 'I just didn't think it would take this long.'
Everyone at the Final Four seemed happy that Charles had finally won a title, and not just because of his battle with prostate cancer. Charles, a professional player for 17 years with the Portland Timbers and internationally, has been a longtime coach at the youth level in Portland and coached in both the men's and women's U.S. national programs. He coached the U.S. Olympic men's team at the 2000 Sydney Games.
'I couldn't be happier for Clive,' Santa Clara's Smith said. 'If we can't be national champions, I would want it to be Clive and the Pilots.'
Sinclair, who has no plans to leave school early, said Charles was a key factor in her decision to attend Portland.
'From the moment they started recruiting me, I knew the Portland program was special,' she said. 'It's a lot like a family. I know that when I graduate, I'll still be part of the program. I'll be a Pilot for life.'
Many former Pilots were on hand for Sunday's championship game.
'It seemed like every time I turned around, there was someone else,' Charles said. 'It was wonderful to win with so many of our graduates here.'
Senior Erin Misaki paid homage to the Pilots' extended family, too. The Portland bench at the Final Four had a large banner signed by hundreds of supporters who saw the team off from the UP campus on Wednesday afternoon.
'Our whole school deserves this,' Misaki said. 'It's a big relief for all of us.'
The Pilots will graduate six seniors: Misaki, midfielder Valerie Fletcher, defenders Betsy Barr and Lauren Orlandos, forward Emily Patterson and goalie Arase. Orlandos, Misake and Arase joined Sinclair on the all-tournament team at the Final Four (Sinclair was the Offensive MVP).
Before they leave, though, they are likely to get to visit the White House, something that Santa Clara did last season. Sinclair, who is Canadian, said it would be interesting to meet George W. Bush, who was the governor of Texas before becoming president.
'He's not my national leader, but I guess it will still be a neat thing,' she said. 'Not too many people get to meet the president.'