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With Beaverton's Nedya Sawan leading the attack, Pilots aim to build from a winning 2021 season in tough WCC.

COURTESY PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND ATHLETICS - Beaverton native Nedya Sawan hopes to build upon a strong 2021 season when the forward led Portland with 12 goals and was West Coast Conference first-team selection.Like many of the women who have played soccer in recent years at the University of Portland, the leaders of the 2022 Pilots came to the Bluff wanting to help restore the program's championship legacy.

After posting a winning record in 2021 and tying for fourth place in the West Coast Conference, team captains Nedya Sawan, Emily Collier and Camille Ashe sound confident that a youthful but committed group of Pilots can take another important step forward.

Once regulars in the NCAA Tournament, the Pilots haven't made the postseason since 2013. But the program's legacy isn't lost on current players, who play their first counting match of 2022 when Utah visits Merlo Field on Thursday, Aug. 18.

"I grew up going to all the games and (being a Pilot) was just my dream. I kind of just always knew I was going to go to Portland," Sawan said. "I just wanted to be a part of the group that would bring the soccer legacy back."

A third-year sophomore from Beaverton's Mountainside High, Sawan was named to the West Coast Conference's preseason all-conference team after scoring 12 goals with two assists last season. She is the top returning goal scorer in the WCC.

Duplicating or improving upon those numbers would be nice for Sawan, and for the Pilots. But, as a focal point of the attack, she understands that diversifying her game is critical.

"I think Nedya has really done a great job looking inward and asking questions of herself in terms of where she wants her soccer career to go," Pilots coach Michelle French said. "And there's no doubt that this summer she has narrowed her focus and put in the time to really grow her craft as a player."

Sawan's goal is to play professional soccer. The attention she attracted from opposing teams as last season moved along showed that she has work to do to reach that goal.

"I really wanted to focus on diversifying my game in the attack and finding different ways to be dangerous, because I think my play got a little bit predictable," Sawan said. "If I want to keep being dangerous in the attack, I think I need to find different ways to score and help the team score."

Partly, that means involving teammates when opposing teams send multiple defenders to slow down Sawan. It also means being fit enough to be a consistent threat.

"She just wants to have some more variety to her game so she can be more unpredictable and also be more impactful for a longer period of time throughout a game," French said.

Sawan also is charged with leading off the field. She is one of three team captains, along with senior Collier and sophomore Camille Ashe. All three expressed optimism, pointing to a collective work ethic that pervaded the spring and summer.

"All my years here, I think going into the season we're in the best spot we've been in, and I have this excitement that I haven't had any other years," Collier said.

A Salem native, Collier has played in 43 matches and been deployed at almost every position on the field in a utility role since arriving in 2018.

"It's nice to have a player that you can trust in multiple positions to do the job that needs to be done," French said, noting that Collier each year has evolved into an impactful player. "You can always trust her level of fitness. You can trust her accountability in terms of our team shape. I think the next big step for her is having a consistent impact on the field and she's well on her way to doing that."

COURTESY PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND ATHLETICS - Entering her fifth season, Emily Collier is a veteran presence who has played in defense, midfield and in the attack during her four seasons at Portland.Collier said one way she prepared for this season is learning each player's role on the field so she can be a clarifying voice, be it on set pieces or keeping teammates positionally sound.

Ashe, a third-year sophomore from Arlington, Virginia, who has played mostly as a central defender in her 24 career games, is an example of a player who has started to come into her own after arriving at Portland in the pandemic-altered 2020-21 school year.

"This is a really good opportunity for Camille to find herself again on the field and find where she can trust herself and be confident and we started to see that start to blossom again in the spring," French said.

Ashe said she's worked to be more aggressive and decisive defending inside the penalty area.

"I think everyone could agree that we realized that the small details are really what's important," Ashe said. "So in the offseason we were thinking about working on the little details that were going to help us be consistent this season."

Those details include off-field work. Collier and Ashe each pointed to focusing on their mental health being as important as soccer training. They listed meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, connecting with friends and, in Ashe's case, talking with a therapist, as key tools alongside the physical preparation.

"I struggled with the mental side, which I didn't notice for a while," Collier said. "Now that I'm aware and that I'm working on that, it's definitely really helped me."

Sawan said injuries and the challenges of entering college during a pandemic were growth experiences.

"I think it helped me mature a lot and realize that a lot of things are beyond me and bigger than me. I probably grew a lot during that time," Sawan said.

COURTESY PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND ATHLETICS - Being more assertive and decisive defending her own penalty area is one area Pilots defender Camille Ashe is focused on for the 2022 season.The captains see reason for optimism in the commitment players made to spring and summer training, and to the organic connections built during formal and informal training sessions.

"I think whether that's through fitness that we were able to get through together or just playing, I think people genuinely enjoyed playing together and going to practice even outside of organized practice, which was a huge thing," Sawan said. "And I think that that's all going to show this fall."

Tying for fourth place with Gonzaga last season was Portland's best WCC record since winning the conference in 2013. Entering the fifth season with French at the helm, the Pilots were picked to finish fifth in a conference that includes two of the top teams in the United Soccer Coaches preseason rankings: No. 3-ranked BYU and No. 5 Santa Clara.

"Making the tournament, I think every team across the country would say that's their big goal," said French, who's had two winning seasons over her first four as Portland's coach. "But for us, the goal is to be prepared, be consistent in every single game that we play. And if we take care of the games on a weekly basis, it can set us up for a lot of success down at the end of the season."

Women's soccer storylines

Portland State — The Vikings are picked to finish eighth among nine teams in the Big Sky Conference. PSU scored only 17 goals in 16 games last season. Four of the six players who scored multiple times in 2021 are among the 16 returning players. Of the 28 players on the roster, 15 are from Oregon and four are Portland natives.

Schedule notes — Portland faces four Pac-12 teams, including home matches Sept. 11 against Washington and Sept. 16 against Oregon. The Pilots must face No. 3 BYU and No. 5 Santa Clara on the road and play four of their nine WCC matches at home beginning Oct. 1 against LMU.

Pac-12 — Oregon was picked eighth and Oregon State 11th by Pac-12 coaches. The Ducks were 9-4-6 last fall. Four teams — No. 13 UCLA, No. 15 USC, No. 20 Washington State and No. 21 Stanford (first in the Pac-12 poll) — are in the United Soccer Coaches preseason top 25.

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