Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Pilot star back after injury - UP soccer

It was less than a year ago that University of Portland women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe laid in the middle of the field. The 2,146 fans in attendance for the game, a win over Washington State, sat silently as Rapinoe cried and screamed clinching her left knee. The Pilots star’s leg had been torn to shreds.

The injury, diagnosed on the spot as a torn ACL, ended the year for one of the most talented strikers in the country.

“I knew right away my season was over,” Rapinoe said.

The Pilots season, however, was far from over. Without one of their best players, the ladies in purple continued to roll. With a team featuring nine all-conference players, coach Garrett Smith guided his squad to a quarterfinals match-up against UCLA, the team the Pilots beat to win the 2005 National Championship.

“It just showed how deep we are,” said Smith, whose team finished 17-4-3.

But where was Rapinoe during the heartbreaking 2-1 loss against the Bruins? Against a team that she had friends on? Against the team that tried to recruit her? On the sidelines.

“I just had to be the best cheerleader I could be,” said Rapinoe, whose sister, Rachel, was an all-WCC forward last season as a junior.

She got some advice from a close source. Teammate Rebecca Meierbachtol went through the same injury and warned the competitive Rapinoe not to come back too soon. After six to nine months of rehabilitation, ranging from just trying to bend the knee to cautious running, the former star freshman is getting ready for her junior year.

Just last month the midfielder had yet another set back. Scar tissue had formed in her joint, which needed arthroscopic surgery to remove. However, it seems like a small hurdle to pass. “It feels better than it ever has,” Rapinoe says about her knee. She goes on to say that “a lot of times the surgically repaired knee is stronger than the non-injured one because you do so much conditioning on it.”

Despite playing less than half of the season, Rapinoe still was tied for second on the team in goals with ten. She says she feels she’ll be 100% when the 2007 season rolls around.
Regardless of the return of Girl Wonder to the squad, Smith still feels that it won’t be Rapinoe that will be the leader of the ’07 Pilots.

“Every year [the leaders are] the seniors. The seniors are always the heart of the team because they’ve been around the program for four years,” said Smith.

Spearheading that senior class is defender Stephanie Lopez, midfielder Angie Woznuk, and Rachel Rapinoe.

Lopez, who was club ball teammates with Rapinoe since high school, has solidified herself as one of the top defensive players in the country. Most likely a lock for a spot in the World Cup, Lopez is already starting for the US Women’s National Team this summer.

The bond of the longtime teammates has become mental. “We have an understanding of each other,” says Rapinoe of Lopez. “She knows what I’m going to do and vice versa.”

Also back is leading goal scorer and last year’s WCC freshman of the year Michelle Enyeart. One stranger in a sea of familiar faces next season will be highly touted freshman Elli Reed. The forward from Utah is regarded as one of the best recruits in women’s soccer.

While the Pilots return a truckload of talent from last year, there will be one vacancy left from graduation. Former goalkeeper Cori Alexander, who had thirteen shutouts last season, is leaving an empty spot in front of the goal.

“Cori pretty much won us the National Championship in ’05,” says Rapinoe.

Hoping to fill the shoes (and gloves) of Alexander is Kelsey Davis, who transferred from UCLA two years ago.

“She’s young and still has a lot to learn,” says Rapinoe, “but she has a lot of potential.”

One senior from last season will still be on the sidelines for the Pilots this year. Former midfielder Lisa Sari will return to be an assistant coach.

“She was my own personal assistant coach my freshman year,” says Rapinoe. “She’s a good teacher and communicator and brings a passion about the program.”

Smith also has high regards of his former player, saying she has been an ambassador to the program the past four years.

Also returning next season, is the quick ticket sales for the team that has led the nation in attendance the past two seasons. Just to put Pilotmania into perspective, when U of P traveled to take on #4 Florida State early last season, the Seminoles could only fill up 1,625 seats. When unranked Washington came to Portland, however, 4,892 packed into the Clive Charles Soccer Complex. Rapinoe sure likes seeing a sea of purple.

“I’ve played in a ton of venues, and it is one of the best places I have ever played. They are so excited about women’s soccer, and you can’t find that everywhere.”

The complex had some work done over the summer with the help of donations and school funding. Adding new restrooms, concessions and field turf to the fields, which will help with rain-soaked Portland, will reward the Pilot fans who have been loyal over the years.

As certain as there will be excitement in the stands, there will be talent on the field. Rapinoe and Company are back. “We work our butts off everyday to get back to the tournament. The talent is there, but it’s the hard work that will get us back to the Final Four,” she says.

Smith feels like the college soccer community can throw away the term “little Portland Pilots.”

“We are not the up and coming new comers anymore.”

Story by Jesse Severson

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