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Pilots' rookies have stepped up

Oct. 17, 2008

BOAZ HERZOG
The Oregonian Staff

Coming into this season, the biggest questions surrounding the University of Portland women's soccer team centered on its back line.

The Pilots had graduated three of their starting defenders, including all-American Stephanie Cox. That meant the team would have to rely on new blood.

But whom? How reliable would they be? And could they coalesce with a team that already skewed young?

Freshmen Kassi McCluskie and Michelle Olivier stepped in to fill the back line's most glaring hole, its central core. More than halfway through the season -- one in which the third-ranked Pilots (11-1, 1-0 West Coast Conference) have allowed three goals -- coach Garrett Smith said he has complete confidence in his two youngest defenders.

"They've answered the questions," he said. "They've just held it down and done everything so well for us."

But the biggest challenges lie ahead. The Pilots play six more games, including Merlo Field matches against Loyola Marymount (6-4-3, 1-0) tonight and Pepperdine (5-7-2, 0-1) on Sunday, before the postseason. Florida coach Becky Burleigh, after her team's 2-0 loss to Portland last month, called the Pilots' defense vulnerable to a playoff opponent applying heavy offensive pressure.

As a possible national title contender, she said of the Pilots, "That's an issue they're going to have to deal with."

When the playoffs commence, McCluskie and Olivier will be among six first-year Pilots asked to play a bigger role. That's because forward Michelle Enyeart and midfielders Elli Reed and Keelin Winters will depart for Chile to play in the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup.

Smith called a meeting with his freshmen last week to remind them to continue to focus on further honing their play, especially come NCAA Tournament time.

The young players took Smith's pep talk to heart, McCluskie said.

"We're all very aware we're going to have a big impact on the team when it comes to that point," she said of the playoffs. "We're all going to need to step it up and not be afraid to take on things that we normally wouldn't."

Olivier already has a new challenge. She probably will play the remainder of the season as a defensive midfielder, filling the vacancy created when Winters leaves for Chile. Junior Korie Nicholson, having recovered from a foot injury, has slid into Olivier's former center back position. She and McCluskie will be flanked by sophomores Jessica Tsao and Megan Sweeney.

During the team's current 10-game winning streak, Olivier said, "We became complacent and too comfortable. We kind of lost our edge."

It especially showed, she said, during the team's 1-0 overtime victory over Washington this month. Miscommunication among the team's back line caused breakdowns in Portland's defense, allowing one of Washington's crafty forwards to make several dangerous runs with the ball. The team showed improvement in its 4-0 win Sunday at Gonzaga.

"But we can't let down," Olivier said.

Pilots goalkeeper Kelsey Davis said both Olivier and McCluskie have grown up fast.

"They are freshmen, but it feels like now midseason, they are sophomores," Davis said. "Their maturity, their awareness has grown immensely."

Having become crucial cogs in Portland's defense, Olivier and McCluskie have a lot in common. Both, Smith said, are very composed, great going for balls in the air and extend their reach with long legs. Neither is blessed with great speed, he said, but their strong intellect makes up for it.

McCluskie and Olivier also complement each other well. McCluskie, who grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., is feisty, loud and a self-professed "goofball." Olivier, from Roswell, Ga., is calm, reserved and straight-faced.

They were both forwards in their youth and met at a youth national team camp more than four years ago. Now, they are roommates and share the same passion for defending.

"We both have that same mentality: We're a wall back there," McCluskie said. "Nobody is going to get by us. Or it's not going to be easy."