Power Rankings: Portland loud, proud

Courtesy of University of Portland

Without a football team at the school, Portland's students pour their passion into the women's soccer team at Merlo Field.

Like a great many college students in the state of Oregon at the moment, Taylor Spooner's week is building toward a big game Thursday night against a rival from the Bay Area.

Come that evening, the sophomore math major will gather with friends, all dressed in the appropriate colors, and they will invest their hearts -- not to mention a good bit of their lungs and larynges -- in what follows. Championship implications and school pride will saturate the air like a fine rain. Or given that this is Portland in November, quite possibly amid that rain.

But the scene in question has nothing to do with the University of Oregon traveling to Stanford for a football game.

It won't lead the night's sports highlight shows or earn headlines in newspapers, but one of the best experiences in women's college sports will play out on a bluff over the Willamette River in the northwest corner of a soccer-mad city when the University of Portland hosts Santa Clara (ESPNU, 11 p.m. ET).

There are few rivalries in women's soccer with more history than that between the Pilots and Broncos, who will meet for the 33rd time in a series separated by a single Santa Clara win, and there is no better place to watch it play out than Merlo Field, with Spooner and the rest of his Villa Drum Squad mates at the center of a large and loud student section.

Courtesy of University of Portland

Expect a lot of noise and not much clothing from the Villa Drum Squad as it supports the Portland women's soccer team.

There is no football team at Portland. There is one of the most successful programs in the history of women's soccer. Students don't seem to miss the former.

"When you step on the field for the first time and you have thousands and thousands of fans and students, it's like no other feeling that you'll ever feel," Portland senior defender Amanda Frisbie said. "I'm very appreciative of being a part of it. ... For students to have that much appreciation for women's soccer and women's sports and have that much commitment and passion for our program and for women's sports is pretty unbelievable."

And if soccer means more here, beating Santa Clara usually means the most.

Until the past two years, when Stanford finally became the second Pac-12 school to win a national championship and Notre Dame relocated its three titles to North Carolina's turf in the ACC, the annual game between Portland and Santa Clara marked the only time in women's college soccer that former national champions met as conference opponents.

The two schools have 18 College Cup appearances between them, 10 by the Broncos and eight by the Pilots. Only North Carolina and Notre Dame have more. Santa Clara won its national title first in 2001, then lost to Portland in the final game a year later. The Pilots added a second national title in 2005. But it has been a few years since the two schools met with the stakes as high as they are this year, with both teams ranked in or around the top 10 and control of the WCC title race on the line (a Santa Clara win would clinch the title, while a Portland win likely would create a three-way tie between those two schools and BYU).

The history involved on both sides sets the rivalry apart, names like Brandi Chastain, Leslie Osborne, Christine Sinclair, Megan Rapinoe and so many more. But so, too, does the atmosphere.

Spooner grew up in the Portland area as a soccer fan, Argentine lineage drawing him to support that country's national team. But while he was aware of the women's program at the university, he didn't consider himself a fan of women's soccer by any stretch. What pulled him in was Villa Maria Hall, the dorm on campus from which the roots of the Villa Drum Squad sprung 25 years ago, and still its home. That was about the time the late Clive Charles took over the women's program, Tiffeny Milbrett arrived and started piling up goals and the Pilots became more than a soccer team.

It is the Villa Drum Squad that lends Merlo Field both its soul and its soundtrack, the kilt-wearing, flag-waving, drum-beating crew marching to the stadium amid smoke bombs and taking up residence along one sideline (and increasingly this season, the sidelines of venues from San Diego to Seattle). There are cheers and banners, instruments passed down from class to class. There are captains. And there is passion. Lots of passion.

There are not, on the other hand, many shirts.

"Some people look at us and we're just a bunch of random college guys that are kind of like a pep band that doesn't know what it's doing, which is true in some ways," Spooner admitted. "But there's a lot of organization and planning that goes behind it."

Never more so than this season. When Portland hosted BYU in another key conference game a week and a half ago, there were 1,768 students among the more than 5,000 fans in attendance. More than half the undergraduate student body was at Merlo Field. That total broke the record for student attendance (1,700), set in September in a game against Marquette.

Events may conspire to prevent another record this week -- in addition to the Ducks playing on television at the same time as Thursday's football game, the Portland Timbers host the Seattle Sounders in another rather intense regional soccer rivalry that also happens to be the return leg of a Western Conference semifinal in MLS.

Just don't expect it to be quiet.

An All-American goalkeeper at Santa Clara, Julie Ryder Juarez started for the Broncos in an NCAA tournament game at Merlo Field in 2003, the year after the teams played for the national championship. All game long she heard an earful from the "Villans" -- let's just say their repertoire ran a little fiercer than "We've got spirit, yes we do; we've got spirit, how about you?" So when she made two saves in a penalty shootout to help her team advance, she headed right for the Drum Squad, the celebration that much sweeter when it came right in front of them.

Yet even for her, the place is special, all the more when two of the best programs of all time renew a rivalry.

"Merlo really, really felt like a professional atmosphere," Ryder Juarez said. "They've got the drums, and the students are loud and crazy. And everybody is just packed in so tight. It's just loud and it's a great atmosphere for somebody who feeds off of that. It's very obviously a pro-Portland crowd, but just to see the enthusiasm for women's soccer was really, really awesome."

Now on to the rankings for the final time this season.

1. Virginia (20-0-0, last week's ranking: 1)

Virginia had gone nearly 9½ games without trailing, so the Cavaliers could have been forgiven for appearing unfamiliar with their surroundings when Maryland jumped ahead 1-0 in an ACC quarterfinal. Instead, they scored six unanswered goals, Morgan Brian getting the first and assisting on the second. As rarely as Virginia faces adversity, how it keeps responding is telling. The Cavaliers fell behind at Boston College, a place that has been a house of horrors for them; they took the lead within 15 minutes. They trailed Duke by two goals at halftime; they pulled level within four minutes in the second half. Champions rarely trail. But when they do, they don't trail for long.

2. UCLA (16-1-2, last week's ranking: 2)

The Bruins shut out Oregon State and Oregon this past week and remain in position (if you believe the adjusted RPI) for one of the top four seeds in the NCAA tournament regardless of what happens in the regular-season finale against USC. That means that after just one postseason home game last season, they should be home for any games through the quarterfinals. That's all the more important because this group is very good but does not have a large margin for error. UCLA entered the weekend tied for No. 78 nationally in goals per game. In the past decade, only one national champion ranked outside the top 20 in that statistic (USC at No. 55 in 2007).

3. Florida State (16-1-3, last week's ranking: 3)

Much of what applies to UCLA could be said for Florida State, which checked in just a few spots better in goals per game. But the Seminoles yet again got enough offense to get the job done, advancing to the ACC semifinals with a 2-0 win against Duke. Coach Mark Krikorian is famously not the most ardent fan of the conference tournament (at least in its old condensed format), but another win could be big for NCAA seeding. The Seminoles climbed to No. 5 in adjusted RPI this week. A win against North Carolina might help them slide past a team like Marquette in the seedings.

4. North Carolina (17-3-0, last week's ranking: 4)

The Tar Heels will get a chance to level the season series against at least one of the teams that beat them. A 1-0 win against Boston College in the ACC quarterfinals sets up a semifinal against Florida State, which beat North Carolina 1-0 in Tallahassee in September (a second such chance could await against Virginia in the final). This is a team that has 17 wins and should be set for one of the top four seeds in the NCAA tournament, so any nitpicking needs to come with that caveat. But it's also true that North Carolina really is less efficient offensively this season, scoring on 9.7 percent of its shots to this point. That would be its worst percentage in the past decade by a decent margin.

5. Santa Clara (13-3-1, last week's ranking: 5)

There are teams, and we're talking dozens of teams, that haven't scored 20 goals all season. Santa Clara managed that in its past three games. The offensive surge continued in a 9-2 win against Pepperdine in which the Broncos actually fell behind 2-0 before piling up nine unanswered goals. Putting up nine goals against San Francisco, a team scuffling at the bottom of the WCC, was one thing, but Pepperdine was a top-60 RPI team with a winning record. Morgan Marlborough had a hat trick against the Waves, giving her six goals in the past three games.

6. Denver (16-1-1, last week's ranking: 6)

Rest isn't necessarily a bad thing at this time of year, especially given the miles Denver has traveled this season, but at some point the combination of lesser competition in the Summit League and limited game action entering the NCAA tournament has to raise questions about sharpness when the Pioneers do get back at it. They haven't played since Oct. 27, and a Summit semifinal and (presumably) final in Fort Wayne, Ind., will be their only warm-up before the big tournament the week after.

7. Virginia Tech (15-3-2, last week's ranking: 8)

The final two rounds of the ACC tournament in Cary, N.C., may offer a better field than the College Cup will in the same venue next month. All four teams that advanced to Friday's semifinals are ranked in the top five. That's heady company for the Hokies, who got a goal from Jazmine Reeves with just over a minute left in the second overtime period to beat 10-woman Notre Dame in the ACC quarterfinals. The bad news is that at No. 10 in adjusted RPI and 0-3 against the other teams in Cary, Virginia Tech needs an upset against rival Virginia to make any more headway.

8. Florida (15-3-1, last week's ranking: 9)

The Gators may be in the midst of their SEC quarterfinal against Arkansas by the time you read this. They enter on a roll, having wrapped up the top seed in the conference with a seven-game winning streak to close the regular season. At No. 11 in the most recent RPI and with a chance to sweep the regular season and conference tournament in the SEC, a top-eight seed and its accompanying hosting privileges is not wholly out of the question. Another win against a team in the RPI top 25 would help, but that could come only in a potential final against South Carolina.

9. Portland (14-2-1, last week's ranking: 10)

Santa Clara controls its own destiny in the race for the WCC conference title and the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but Portland can send people scrambling for potential tiebreak scenarios with a win.

10. Marquette (16-3-0, last week's ranking: NR)

The RPI continues to adore Marquette, despite a modest 4-2-0 record against teams ranked in the top 50. That makes for a very interesting week, as the Golden Eagles host the semifinals and final of the Big East tournament. Win that, with a potential top-10 win against Georgetown in the final, and this team might end up with a No. 1 seed. If Maegan Kelly is hitting a vein of form as November arrives, it's all the better for the team. Marquette's leading scorer picked up three goals in wins the past two weekends against Providence and Butler.

Next five: Stanford, Nebraska, Michigan, Texas Tech, Notre Dame

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