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Pacific builds program from ground up

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I can envision the scene at Pacific University's Lincoln Park Stadium late Saturday afternoon, after the Boxers' victory over Puget Sound - what would be the first for the football program in two decades.

The fans rise from their seats for a standing ovation. The students storm the field to celebrate. Keith Buckley - 0-16 in his two seasons as Pacific's head coach - gets a ride on the shoulders of his players.

'Every ounce of my being wants that for the kids,' Buckley says. 'This is not about me. I always joke with people, you don't take this job if you care about your career record. As a first-time head coach, I've put myself in an incredible hole.

'But that's not what I care about. I was hired to build a program. We've taken the right steps to making this a program the faculty can be proud of, the players' student peers can be proud of, alums can be proud of.'

Buckley is careful not to place too much emphasis on Pacific (0-7 overall, 0-4 in the NWC) beating UPS (0-7, 0-4) in Saturday's Homecoming matchup - the Boxers' final home game.

'We will not talk to the kids about this being a game we should win,' Buckley says. 'All that does with a team of freshmen and sophomores is create tension. Football is not a game you can play rigid either physically or emotionally.'

When Pacific reinstituted a program last year that was dismantled after the 1991 season, it elected to build from the bottom up. No junior-college or four-year transfers. Mostly freshmen - 110 of them the first season.

After going 0-9 last season, the Boxers came close to victory in the first two games this season, falling 36-28 to Simon Fraser and 23-16 to Menlo - and holding halftime leads in both games.

As the season has gone on, though, the losses have been more one-sided - 61-35 to Lewis and Clark, 47-9 to Willamette, 49-6 to Linfield and 48-6 to Whitworth last Saturday.

Pacific has been outscored 294-107 this season, but the Boxers own a time-of-possession advantage over opponents (32:30 to 27:30), and foes have only a small edge in first downs (134-115).

'We've given up a lot of big plays,' Buckley says. 'We played better against Lewis and Clark, Linfield and PLU than we did last year. That's progress.

'But we live in a world where the end result in some cases is all people want to see. We talked about that with our kids. We've had to define success in different ways.'

Or, as sophomore quarterback T.C. Campbell says, 'We look at every game and take positives from it.'

Employing a West Coast offense, Pacific has outpassed opponents (261.1 yards per game to 192.1) but has managed only 46.9 rushing yards per contest.

'That's four sophomores and a freshman on our offensive line trying to push (opposing) seniors who have been in the weight room for four years,' Buckley says. 'We'll bust a run for 13, 14 yards, and on the next play lose three.'

With only three seniors on the roster - none as starters - the Boxers are still young.

'We're still not to the stage where we can expect to compete with teams putting juniors and seniors on the field,' athletic director Ken Schumann says, 'but we're getting there.

'Keith and his staff are doing a great job. It's not easy to start up a program. They're doing a great job of keeping the kids motivated. It's a five-year project, and we're not even through the second year.'

The students, alums and Forest Grove community seem to be staying with the Boxers. Home attendance has averaged nearly 2,000 this fall.

'Support has been excellent,' Schumann says. 'The community is happy that football is back.'

Through 16 straight losses, though, any team will lose some followers.

'The real fans, they understand what it takes to build a program,' Campbell says. 'They understand what we're going through. They're always going to be there.'

Buckley, who came to Pacific after four years as an assistant coach at Cal Davis, says the attitude of his players has 'been incredible.'

'I've been having meetings with the players today,' the coach says. 'Kids are coming in realizing they can do more, not just on the field but in development of the program as a whole. They want so badly to have success, and they are continuing to push themselves forward.

'It's what I had in mind coming to a D-III school - walking in here every day and absolutely loving the kids we're around. That has born true.'

Not that the losses haven't worn on the players.

'We're all frustrated,' Campbell says. 'I come from a high school program that won a lot. But we have to understand we are building a program, with still mostly freshmen and sophomores.

'We've had speed bumps here and there. We've had disappointment. But there's a cohesion among the players. We're all one big family.'

One big piece to the project is missing, Schumann concedes.

'We've been much improved this year over last,' he says. 'To validate what we're doing by putting ourselves in the win column, that would be a nice thing.'

The opportunity is there Saturday against an opponent with exactly the same record. Maybe there will be the celebration to end all celebrations on the Lincoln Park Stadium turf by late afternoon.

'We can only hope,' Campbell says. 'It's already going to be a great environment, with Homecoming and a lot of alumni and parents there.

'We'll go out there and do our best, and hopefully a 'W' comes our way.'

Kerry Eggers is a sports columnist for the Portland Tribune. Read his column at www.portlandtribune.com.