- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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With two national championships in the past decade, a reputation for technical artistry on the field, and the biggest crowds in women's college soccer, not to mention more purple kilts than any place this side of Scotland, Portland seems a little like the perfect program.
If recent history is any indication, the Pilots don't have the luxury of being anything less.
Halley Kreminski's goal in the 65th minute provided the final margin in Portland's 1-0 win against Texas A&M on Friday. The win moved the Pilots to 9-0-0, the third-best start in program history. It also came against the only team to beat Portland in the regular season a year ago, a blemish that did not go unnoticed.
Despite winning everything else on its regular-season slate last fall, Portland did not receive one of four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. As a result, for the fourth season in a row and the second in a row after a one-loss regular season, the Pilots played a quarterfinal game on the road. And for the fourth season in a row, they came up one win short of the College Cup.
Portland lost a total of eight games during the past four regular seasons, yet played nine games away from home during the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament during that span.
"We see ourselves as being one of the top teams in the nation," senior Sophie Schmidt said of the reaction to last year's draw. "And to not be seen as one of those teams, it just puts a little fire under your butt to prove everybody wrong, that that's what we should be. You can't really dwell on it too much, and you can't change it, but it was just a little bit disappointing."
Plenty of talent returned this season, but Hermann Trophy candidate Michelle Enyeart, starting goalkeeper Kelsey Davis and defensive stalwart Megan Sweeney did not. On top of that, redshirt senior Kendra Chandhoke (nine goals last season) remains sidelined after an offseason injury, and starting midfielder Kendall Johnson has missed the past five games with an injury.
But as the Pilots head to the Bay Area for showdowns with Cal and Stanford, they remain in pursuit of perfection in no small part because of a class usually most notable for its imperfections. Freshman Micaela Capelle leads the Pilots with six goals. She was joined in Friday's starting lineup by classmates Sarah Bridges and Ellen Parker, while fellow freshman Michelle Cruz came off the bench and has started five games to this point.
Early in the second half against Texas A&M, with Portland dominating possession but unable to break the tie, Bridges hesitated a beat too long with the ball a few yards outside the 18-yard box, missing Schmidt making a run to her left around the defense and outside back Jessica Tsao making a run of her own wide to the right. The chance dissolved. But less than three minutes later, it was Bridges who stayed with the play when the ball squirted toward the end line and delivered the cross for Kreminski to finish.
Freshmen are going to make mistakes, but the scary part for Portland's opponents is that as Bridges' quick recovery suggests, they're going to make fewer and fewer of them.
"I think that it's just starting to come together now," Schmidt said. "Preseason, freshmen are in shock, just physically learning the demands of playing at a collegiate level and then just kind of getting the jitters out the first couple of games. It takes awhile for them to get settled, to learn how we play, because we play possession-oriented [soccer]. And teams come out and try to play their best game against us, so for them to learn they have to play their best game every game."
The Pilots likely will have to do without Schmidt, 10th all time in goals at Portland, for much of October as the veteran of the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics helps Canada attempt to qualify for next summer's World Cup. That will hamper her Hermann candidacy, but it may not derail the team's quest for that elusive No. 1 seed.
"It's a difficult decision to make, as far as playing here in your last college season and going to play for your country, because that's a huge deal," Schmidt said. "It's a hard situation to be in, but I think this year, we're more equipped than ever for me to just leave and be OK. We have the players who can fill that role."
And perhaps provide her with a perfect postseason ending when she returns.
Around the nation
• If you think going 110 minutes without a goal is tough on the nerves, try going nearly three decades without a point.
Providence continued a quietly impressive start and improved to 6-0-2 with a 0-0 draw at Connecticut in the Big East opener for both teams. The draw represented the first point ever earned by the Friars at Connecticut; their only previous positive result in the series came with a win in the 1993 Big East tournament (the Friars' series record now stands at 1-27-1). And while Friday's final score was a poor representation of a game that opened up into an exciting end-to-end contest in the second half (at one point, Providence hit the crossbar three times in the span of about three minutes), it was indicative of a game between equals.
Led by Santa Clara transfer Amanda Webster, redshirt senior forward Jill Camburn and a defense that has kept clean sheets in five of seven games, Providence is no longer a pushover.
"Obviously, we came in for the win, and we had a few opportunities to get that," Camburn said. "But walking away with a tie on their home field, at night, first Big East game, is still huge for us. [The program] has changed a lot since I came in as a freshman. I definitely feel like we're building a stronger program and working toward becoming the team we want to be."
• It wasn't exactly the sweet smell of victory, but Hofstra will take it. Locked in a 0-0 tie in the second overtime against Columbia, Hofstra set up for a free kick near the opponent's 18-yard box when a skunk made its way onto the other end of the field. The game was halted for several minutes while the intruder was coaxed off the field, but immediately upon the restart, Hofstra sophomore Amy Turner sent the ball into the back of the net for the winner and her first college goal.
The curious circumstances of Friday's win notwithstanding, Hofstra is inching its way into the rankings conversation with six consecutive wins on the heels of an opening loss at Boston College, including road wins at Indiana and Purdue. The Pride start three juniors and three seniors as midfielders and forwards, experience that shows up in a 114-46 edge in shots this season.
West Virginia's 1-0 win against Virginia was both the week's biggest upset and no surprise at all. Though unranked this year, West Virginia is 5-2-2 against regional rivals Virginia and Penn State since 2006. UCLA's loss at Colorado on Sunday was the third time this season the Bruins have come away from the second game of a two-game weekend with a loss or a draw, the first time that's happened to them since 2004. An anchor in North Carolina's back line this season, Rachel Wood scored her first goal of the season in a 7-1 win against Middle Tennessee on Friday. Eleven players have scored this season for the Tar Heels, who have had at least 14 goal scorers in each of the past 10 seasons. Minnesota hasn't lost since a 1-0 defeat at Notre Dame in its opener. In fact, the Gophers have trailed just twice in nine subsequent games, and both times, including Thursday's upset of South Carolina, they evened the scored within five minutes. Santa Clara improved to 6-1-2 this season with wins against Georgetown and Utah. The Broncos play their next three games against Pac-10 teams: Oregon, UCLA and Stanford. The Broncos are 0-6-3 against the Pac-10 since the start of 2008, after going 8-7-4 against the league the five previous seasons.
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.