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Pilots home field buoys playoff mood

If there's one thing that has impressed the University of Portland freshmen, it's the crowds at Merlo Field, especially now that the women's soccer playoffs have started.

'The alumni, there are so many of them,' forward Angie Woznuk says. 'We see Tiffeny Milbrett all the time and so many others who have worn the jersey here.'

'And the crowds are so supportive,' says defender Stephanie Lopez. 'It's definitely a comfort to know there are people behind you.'

'You're playing for more than just a win here,' defender Kari Evans says. 'You're really representing the school and the community.'

'And no one has put any pressure on us to defend the NCAA title,' midfielder Lisa Sari says. 'In some ways, it almost feels like if we were to win this year, it would be a bigger deal because no one is expecting us to win.'

Portland (18-3-1) plays host to Santa Clara (14-3-5) in the third round at 1 p.m. Sunday.

The Pilots became something of a long shot to repeat as NCAA champs when junior forward Christine Sinclair, the 2002 player of the year, chose the Canadian national team and a redshirt year instead of playing just half a season for UP.

But the Pilots, who graduated five starters off last year's team, barely missed a beat.

In most games, five or six freshmen start, including goalkeeper Cori Alexander.

'The freshmen have really done a great job of coming into the program and stepping up to the challenges of playing at the college level,' junior Kristen Rogers says. 'We wouldn't be here without them.'

Sari, who is from Longview, Wash., and Lopez have started every game, while Evans and Woznuk have started for much of the season. Freshman Jennifer Tuttle has started and subbed and is the team's fourth-leading scorer with six goals and three assists.

Woznuk celebrated with the Pilots last year as part of the school's entourage in Austin, Texas.

She was at the Final Four because she played for the U.S. under-19 team that won the 2002 world championships, and that team was part of the festivities. Sari was at the Final Four, too, because she was playing in a club tournament.

The freshmen look forward to playing the next two years alongside Sinclair, who has practiced with the team this fall. That figures to make the Pilots even more of a powerhouse.

'It's exciting to know we have Christine coming back,' Evans says. 'We're just going to do as well as we can this year and then build on that.'

Notes

Portland (9-8-1) is in the NCAA men's tournament for the 11th time in 15 years and plays at Oregon State (13-6-0) on Saturday at noon in the first round of the 48-team tourney. Saturday's winner plays at Washington (12-4-2) on Wednesday. UP has allowed just four first-half goals but has given up 18 in the second half or overtime. The Pilots scored 14 first-half goals and 14 second-half goals. Sophomore Alex Salazar leads Portland with 10 goals, and he put 23 of his 27 shots on goal during the season. Portland beat Oregon State 2-0 in the first round last year at Merlo Field and also beat the Beavers 2-0 earlier this year. Oregon State is 13-3 at home the past two seasons.