After five rocky years and a combined 36-125 record under head coach Cheryl Sorenson, the University of Portland women’s basketball team is looking for a fresh start to prove everyone wrong under newly-hired head coach Michael Meek.
The team has since graduated two solid seniors guard Darian Slaga and forward Julie Spencer who both reached 1,000 points last season. Spencer earned All-Conference Second Team honors and is now playing professionally in Sweden.
In a recently released West Coast Conference preseason poll, the Pilots were picked to finish last in the conference, seated at 10th.
“I think that there are some positives about being the underdog in every league game we play,” Meek said. “We knew where we’d be at coming at the beginning of the season but in watching us practice and play, I see no reason we shouldn’t be competitive in every game we play and win or lose, our goal is to go 1-0.”
The returners and new freshmen have a similar mentality, looking at their 10th place ranking in the conference.
“There's always room for growth in starting on the bottom,” lone senior guard Kate Andersen said. “There's no expectations for us outside of our team, but within us we know that we're better than that so we're just going to prove everybody wrong.”
Since practices officially started on Sept. 28, the team has been growing and learning Meek’s new coaching system. But the team has been putting in work since the summer. According to Andersen, their practices have been a lot of four-on-four and five-on-five drills, running through new plays and adapting on defense and offense.
“Coach Meek helps us understand what we're going through and what we're trying to get out of each drill and play,” Andersen said. “That's good for us because we need to be taught more and as we progress, we're developing more skills and getting better at reading situations.”
The team recruited well this year, bringing in two new guards, Kelsey Lenzie and Megan Engesser. Meek also brought in two new forwards, Alex Fowler and Keeley Frawley, both from Australia like sophomore point guard Haylee Andrews. Over the summer, freshman forward Fowler played for the Austalian National U-19 women’s basketball team, competing in the U-19 FIBA Women’s World Cup, and the coaches are eager to see how it translates to college ball.
Portland returns Andrews, who continues to impress her coaches. In her freshman debut, she averaged 11.8 points per game shooting 46.9% for field goals and 72.2% from the free-throw line. Andrews was also included in the All-Conference freshman squad.
“I'm looking forward to playing with Alex and Keeley, two more Aussies, so that's always good to have someone close to home,” Andrews said. “We're all super excited to have bought into Meek and it's Kate’s last season as our only senior so we all want to play for her, as well.”
Andersen has also recently stepped into a starting role, leading the team with 41 steals and averaging 5.8 points per game last season.
“I'm pretty sad that it’s going to come to an end, but I'm glad that I get to end my last year with Meek,” Andersen said. ”I’m looking forward to learning, but also staying in the moment and enjoying things while they last because my best friends are on this team, and it's going to be sad leaving them after the season's over.”
Under Meek, the Portland Pilots are looking to rebuild and move forward from past seasons’ flounders to be as competitive as possible in every game while also creating a culture where the athletes love their experience and support each other along the journey.
“We keep telling them the season is a marathon not a sprint — that it’s a process that’s just going to take some time,” Meek said. “Our goal is to just grow a little bit every day and we’re seeing improvements each and every day.”
The team’s first game is an exhibition against Lewis & Clark on Saturday, Nov. 2 at 5 p.m. in the Chiles Center. In past years, the Pilots have started strong with wins in exhibition matches but failed to thrive in preseason and conference play. This year, they hope to break that pattern.
Morgan Wahler is a sports reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.