The University of Portland has found success in a few sports in the West Coast Conference ever since it joined in 1976. Pilots have produced successful figures in the world of athletics, from superstar soccer players Christine Sinclair and Megan Rapinoe to head coach for the Miami Heat Erik Spoelstra.
Recently however, UP hasn’t dominated in quite the same fashion. We haven’t produced any megastars or won a national championship. If we’re not currently living in the golden age of Pilot athletics, it begs the question: “When was the golden age?”
What’s the best year athletically the University of Portland has ever had?
Here’s a look at the best years in UP sports history in order to figure out which one stands out amongst the rest.
The Determination Process
There are a few criteria that make a year “the best,” including the amount of conference championships won. If there’s a year where the Pilots scored a significant amount of hardware on their way to the top, then that year will be taken into the equation.
But there’s also more to consider when looking at the best. Were there any individuals that performed exceptionally well throughout the year? Was there a significant accomplishment or milestone reached? Was there an emotional or historical significance to a certain year? And biggest of all, did a certain team achieve the ultimate goal: a national championship. All of these things are important when considering what makes a year the best.
With all of these factors in mind, here are the contenders for the best years the Pilots have ever had.
1996 was a very successful year for the Pilots in terms of conference play. Both soccer and cross-country won the conference and both the basketball teams, which is most significant here.
Historically, the Pilots basketball teams have been, to put it plainly, mediocre. The men’s team before 1996 had only made the NCAA tournament once, back in 1959, and it had never won the conference during either the regular season or the WCC tournament. Even now, it has a conference winning percentage of .357.
However, in 1996, the Pilots managed to attain some relevance in WCC basketball. They finished with a 19-11 record and went on to win the WCC tournament that year, earning themselves the no. 14 seed in the NCAA tournament. The team hasn’t been back since
The women’s team has struggled recently, but it had a short stretch in the 1990s where it performed well. The Pilots made it to the tournament four times between 1994 and 1997, winning in 1994. They were the regular season champions in 1992, 1996 and 1997. The team had five players earn all-WCC honors in 1996. Laura Sale, a forward for the team, won WCC Player of the Year that year, and Jim Sollars, their coach, won WCC coach of the year. Plainly, the Pilots were the best women’s basketball team in the conference in 1996.
1996 saw a significant uptick in conference championships, making it an impressive year for the Pilots. But one thing it lacked was a national championship win. This is a rarity for a school like UP in general, so it doesn't put the year at a glaring disadvantage. But it could fall behind years where Portland did take the national gold.
2002 stands out as a particularly spectacular year, mostly because of the performance of the women’s soccer team. It manhandled the competition and ended up winning a national championship, the first NCAA title in UP history (The women’s cross-country team won a NAIA title in 1985). On top of this, men’s soccer and both cross-country teams won the conference.
The 2002 team had a vast collection of talented players that helped it succeed. Christine Sinclair, who has gone on to play for the Canadian national team as well as a slew of professional clubs, was a killer for the Pilots. She won the Honda Women’s Soccer National Player of the Year award in 2002, and the same award from Soccer America and Soccer Buzz, becoming the first sophomore to ever win. She was also named to the NCAA All-Tournament team, winning offensive MVP in the tournament. Sinclair was absolutely scintillating in 2002, carving up the competition on her way to being crowned the best collegiate women’s soccer player that year.
What also stands out is who was leading the team from the sidelines. Clive Charles is the man largely responsible for putting University of Portland on the map athletically. Taking over as the men’s coach in 1986 and expanding his duties to the women’s team in 1989, Charles turned the program into a perennial WCC powerhouse. He’s the most decorated coach in UP history, and he consistently made the soccer program something opponents feared greatly.
Clive Charles died in August of 2003 after a battle with prostate cancer. The fact that 2002 was the last year the most important coach in UP history led his team on the pitch and that they ended it with a national championship is just storybook stuff. It was the perfect ending to an illustrious coaching career that ended too soon. Clive Charles is the man responsible for making UP soccer respected, and being able to bring in a national championship in his final year is absolutely astonishing. There is an emotional significance to this year, and that is why 2002 has an extremely compelling case for being the best year in UP sports history.
The last year that has a real shot at being considered the best year in UP’s long athletic history is 2005. It makes the cut mostly because the women’s soccer team managed to win another national championship. It was the second NCAA championship in school history and is the most recent one for the school.
Christine Sinclair also notched herself a couple of impressive honors during the 2005 season. She won the M.A.C Hermann Trophy and also won the Honda-Broderick Cup, which is awarded to the top female collegiate athlete in the country. No other UP athlete has ever earned the latter, and it is a big reason why this year could be considered the best.
The big thing that hurts 2005 is the fact it wasn’t the first title, which isn’t really a bad thing. A national championship is a huge accomplishment, but the second time it’s done never really compares to the first. It’s not any less impressive, but it definitely isn’t quite as sweet.
So what year wins?
It’s hard to pick one year that stands out as particularly better than the others. All three years have strong cases to be made. Every year has its merits, and no particular year looks bad compared to the others. That being said, the goal is to figure out which is best. So which is it?
Well, it has to be 2002, right?
2002 stands out not just because of how great it was, but because of how important it was. It was the first year UP ever won a NCAA championship. It was the last year that legendary soccer coach Clive Charles ever coached the Pilots. It established the Pilots as a legitimate powerhouse, not just another really good mid-major school. UP was more than just a fine academic college in 2002; it was a legitimately good school for athletics.
2002 encapsulates everything Portland could hope for in a season. It’s the culmination of all the hard work that Clive Charles put into the program. Nothing is more impressive than winning a national championship, and nothing feels better than the first one, especially if it’s the last game coached by the person that is responsible for it all. For all of these reasons, 2002 has to be the best year in UP sports history.