Pilot women eye spring progress
The extra six-month wait to return to competition was, naturally, somewhat frustrating for the University of Portland women's soccer program.
But it wasn't all bad.
With nine newcomers, eight of them freshmen, the Pilots took advantage of the opportunity to focus on skill development.
While the COVID-19 pandemic produced plenty of heartache, from a soccer perspective the postponed fall season has been beneficial for the Pilots, according to coach Michelle French.
The Pilots have 15 returnees, led by preseason all-West Coast Conference forward Taryn Ries. Ries is one of nine seniors on the roster. Eight freshmen join them, four sophomores and two juniors.
Portland is scheduled to play its first counting match of the spring at 1 p.m. Feb. 13 against Oregon State at Merlo Field. As her fourth season at the helm begins, French believes that improved skill will be noticeable to fans who watch the Pilots (via online streaming).
"I think we're going to move the ball better just because our technique is better," French said.
She also expects the interchanges and player movement within the team's formation will be more advanced, thanks to an influx of players who are tactically and technically savvy joining a core of players in their fourth season with French.
One of those veterans, midfielder-defender Elliott Winkelmann, said she's noticed "a new level" of competitiveness in drills as a result of newcomers to the program and the extra skill development teammates focused on over the summer and fall.
Winkelmann spent the spring with her parents in Boise, Idaho, but returned to Portland in June and trained with teammates in the fall. About 16 Pilots were on campus in the fall, and initially trained in small groups then as a team.
"It turned out to be really fun," Winkelmann said. "Everyone got a lot closer. Going to practice was the best part of everyone's day."
Getting back into a routine of full training has not been as difficult as Winkelman anticipated — ecxept for the winter temperatures that are much different from a typical August training camp.
Winkelmann said she isn't nervous about playing a match for the first time in 16 months. She said she is mentally ready for a match and feels her body will be up to the challenge, though she is thankful college substitution rules mean no one needs to play all 90 minutes from the get-go.
Ries, the Ridgefield, Washington, native who has 24 goals and eight assists in 56 college games, will get plenty of attention from opponents. She had three goals in a 8-0 Feb. 6 exhibition win over Lewis & Clark. But she won't be the only attacking option.
French said senior Gabi Brummett has emerged as a strong attacking partner for Ries. Brummett appeared in 15 matches in 2019 after transferring from Duke and "really spent the last year fine tuning her game," French said.
The eight freshmen have brought "a lot of new positive energy" to the program, French said, noting that she already has heard some of the freshmen be vocal leaders during conditioning sessions. She said the freshmen especially benefited from not jumping right into a season because they had time to learn the demands of a college schedule before diving into competition.
French believes three or more of the freshmen will find a way to be impact players this spring. One of those is forward Nedya Sawan out of Beaverton's Mountainside High, who scored 90 goals and had 30 assists in three high school seasons, earning recognition as the Oregon 6A player of the year and the state Gatorade Player of the Year along the way. Sawan also helped her FC Portland team reach the ECNL national playoffs.
There will be new faces in midfield, too. Experience is provided by senior Jamie Rita, who played in all 17 matches in 2019 after transferring from Washington State, and transfer Sydney Kulenguski, a junior who played in 25 games in 2018-19 at Seton Hall. Rylee Seekins, a redshirt senior who has had an injury-riddled career, is not expected to play this spring though she is on track to play again in the fall.
Ellie Walker, who has started 53 games at outside back, is the most experienced defender. The Pilots will play this spring without senior central defender Olivia Dedinger, who is recovering from a torn ACL and expected to return in the fall.
Three goalkeepers — senior Madison Zamora and sophomores Jenny Wahlen and Gina Muzi — are competing for playing time.
Winkelmann, who has played in 53 games at outside back and in midfield, is excited to get one more chance to play a sport that has been a focal point of her life since age 5. She said this spring season will give her welcome closure as she shifts her focus to another passion, graduate-level studies in environmental sciences.
For most of the Pilots, this spring season is a bridge to the fall, when another strong group of seven freshmen are scheduled to arrive even as up to seven current seniors plan to return for one more season.
"We need to develop the young players," French said. "They will have a big role in the spring and a massive role in the fall."
One notable addition is Tiffeny Milbrett, who has joined the program as a volunteer assistant coach. Still second in career scoring at UP, the National Soccer Hall of Famer has coached youth soccer for two decades. This is her first college coaching experience.
The Pilots' scheduled Feb. 13 game against Oregon State is slated to be followed on nine Saturdays by West Coast Conference matches. Portland was picked to finish fifth in the 10-team WCC in a preseason coaches' poll, with BYU favored to win a third consecutive conference title. The WCC champ receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, which is a planned 48-team competition that will conclude with the semifinals and finals May 13-17 at Cary, North Carolina.
• Oregon State — Picked to finish ninth by Pac-12 coaches, the Beavers return 10 starters from a 2019 team that finished 11-6-2 (3-6-2 Pac-12). Redshirt junior McKenzie Weinert (Milwaukie High) was third-team all-conference in 2019 when she led the Beavers with nine goals. Six returnees scored two or more goals in 2019. Weinert is one of 10 Oregonians on the OSU roster, which includes only two seniors plus graduate transfer defender Melissa Symmes. The Beavers have 12 freshmen and eight sophomores.
• Oregon — Picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12, the Ducks are beginning a new era. Graeme Able, an assistant coach for the U.S. teams that won the Women's World Cup titles in 2015 and 2019, was hired in December 2019 as the fourth Oregon women's soccer coach. The Ducks return 17 players (seven starters) from the 2019 team that went 5-9-5, including 1-8-2 in the Pac-12. Junior Jordan Wormdahl led the team with seven goals in 2019 and Ally Cook scored five as a freshman. Junior midfielder Zoe Hasenauer had four goals and four assits.
• Portland State — The Vikings don't play until March 5 and open a nine-game Big Sky Conference schedule March 12.
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