BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Coach says his young team is on the mend and ready for change

COURTESY: UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND - Former Grant Generals standout Hannah Griffiths Boston, celebrating a goal with the University of Portland, is one of the Pilots' top returning players.For more than a decade, the University of Portland had one of the most consistent programs in college women's soccer.

The Pilots won. A lot.

But after 14 consecutive NCAA Tournament berths between 2000 and 2013 — a stretch that included national championships in 2002 and 2005 — the Pilots have failed to qualify for postseason play for three consecutive seasons.

Garrett Smith, in his 15th season as head coach and 25th with the program, believes his Pilots are on the mend and that 2017 is a chance to change the trajectory back to what Pilots fans enjoyed for so long.

"This year we have better health within our team and returning players," Smith says. "We have a young team, which is exciting. They're eager to get their collegiate career started and for our sophomores to re-establish us back into the team we want to be — a team that makes the playoffs every year. I think we've got that."

The Pilots and Oregon played to a 1-1 draw in an exhibition match Aug. 12. Ariel Viera scored Portland's goal.

The games start counting when they play host to Portland State at 7 p.m. Friday and to North Carolina State at 5 p.m. Sunday.

The Pilots were picked to finish fifth in a preseason poll of the 10 West Coast Conference coaches. Portland lost only three players who started all 19 games for the 2016 team that finished 9-7-3 overall but 3-5-1 in the WCC.

The 14 returning players include seven starters and seven of the top eight goal scorers. Senior Hannah Griffiths Boston led the Pilots with eight goals last season. The Grant High graduate missed the final three games of last season with an injury.

Without a proven double-digit scorer, these Pilots are going to need more than a couple of players contributing goals.

"We're going to have to do it by committee," Smith says. "I think we have a lot of players who could potentially score 10 goals."

Among them is forward Kimberly Hazlett, the only Pilot on the 11-player WCC preseason all-conference team. The sophomore from Bellingham, Washington, played in all 19 games last season and scored two goals.

Hazlett, Smith says, "has a lot more confidence and understands the collegiate game a lot better and is much more prepared this year."

The midfield gets a boost with the return of Viera, a senior who missed last season with a knee injury. She played in 57 games over her first three seasons.

Sophomore Rylee Seekins, who played in six matches at the end of last season after rehabilitating from injury, is a potential difference-maker in the middle of the park.

Sophomore Larkin Russell returns at a holding midfield spot after earning West Coast Conference honorable mention as a freshman.

A pair of 5-7 sophomores from Scappoose return to anchor the back line. Natalie Muth played in all 19 games last season, starting 15. Lucy Davidson made 14 appearances (13 starts) at left back as a freshman.

"I feel completely comfortable with who we are and what we will be in the back," Smith says.

In goal, junior Rachel Lusby made seven starts and had five shutouts last season.

The 2017 Pilots have a strong Portland presence, the result of Smith's role with FC Portland — the competitive youth soccer club founded by Clive Charles. A dozen players on the roster played for FC Portland and many of them committed to the Pilots early in their high school career.

Smith, veteran UP assistant coach Lisa Chambers and first-year assistant coach Miguel Guante all coach FC Portland teams. Smith notes that coaching youth soccer is time consuming but a good opportunity for college coaches who are willing to put in the time.

"We get to work with kinds from when they're (age) 10 all the way until they're 18. Not all of them come here, so other coaches get the benefit of it. But for those players that grow up and want to be here at the University of Portland, it's definitely an advantage," Smith says.

"They're not going to hear new information when they get here. It's just played at a different level. So I think the learning curve for a freshman here is way ahead of maybe a freshman coming from elsewhere," Smith says, adding, "Right now we've got a lot of great local players that maybe a lot of people aren't familiar with outside of our region."

One of those is freshman Taryn Ries. A two-time Washington state Class 2A player of the year, Ries scored 96 goals and had 78 assists at Ridgefield High School. Smith sees her in an attacking role for the Pilots.

She suffered an ACL injury in the winter but was cleared to train with the Pilots from the start of preseason practices. 

With a season that lasts 11 weeks, and includes seven conference matches over five weekends, even minor injuries during the season can cost a player significant opportunities. The calendar does not give soccer teams a break when injuries hit.

"It's something that we don't complain about — and maybe we should do a little more complaining about — but at the same time for the team's morale (the message is), 'Hey, we've got 11 players, let's go out and try and win a game.' That's what we've always done."

Another thing that won't change is the way the Pilots play soccer — a philosophy that dates to a 6-1 loss to North Carolina in 1992, in Clive Charles' fourth season coaching Portland.

"I was young at the time and I was thinking: We've got to recruit better, we've got to get faster, we've got to get stronger, we've got to get better," recalls Smith, an assistant coach at the time.

"(Charles) already had the answer: We've got to be able to absorb the pressure from those great athletes because they just overwhelmed us. If we can't feel comfortable with the ball, if we can't absorb some of that pressure tactically, then we'll never beat them. Because we'll never out-recruit them."

The possession-oriented approach that came out of that lesson has served the Pilots well for a quarter century.

"The philosophy's still the same," Smith says. "If we're playing against a team that's better athletically than we are, we have to keep the ball and be able to play out of pressure. If we're playing a team that is worse than us, we still play the same way, it's just a lot easier."

Not much has come easy for the Pilots in recent years, a fact that has the three juniors and four seniors on the team especially driven.

"They've all suffered through some major injury during their time here and have a purpose now that they're healthy to come back and really make this year right for us," he says.

It's a program that isn't used to suffering. Smith says he doesn't feel any added pressure to win now, though.

"Nobody can have greater expectations than anybody on staff here," Smith says. "We've won national championships before. We've been to the playoffs. We expect to be there every year." 

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