One of just six undefeated teams remaining in Division I volleyball, the Portland Pilot haven’t done anything flashy to get there and have tried to ignore the hype.
How did a team that went 15-15 in 2017 and 17-13 in 2016 under then-coach Brent Crouch (now at USC) get off the best start in program history, including the longest win streak in program lore?
By keeping focused on where they are, not ahead or behind, and on each individual’s role in that process.
“One of our core values as a team is learning and luckily we have a great group of learners on our team,” first year coach Jeff Baxter said. “If you are a great learner, that means you are never satisfied with the level that you are at. One of our big goals is to just show up every day and be where your feet are. If you are at practice, be at practice and be great at practice. If you are in the match, be in that match and do not think about matches before or matches in the future, but really try to stay in the moment.
I think the team has done a great job of buying into it and actually applying it. That easier said than done I think, but I think they are bought in. They show up every day at practice with a purpose. That purpose is kind of dictated by previous matches, but not the results of the matches, but our execution level during the matches. They do a nice job of staying process focused so far this season.”
For setter Cali Thompson, who runs the show for the Pilots, dishing out 11.62 assists per set, it is about cohesion.
“I think (this year) is different because at the beginning we had a conversation of what our goals were, what we could do every day and what we could do later on,” Thompson said. “I think this team has totally bought into our team culture, how hard we work, what the standard is and where we want to go. We all want the same thing now and that is very encouraging knowing that we are all here for the same purpose and we are all here for each other. I think we have done a really good job being on the same page and knowing exactly what we all want. That is a big part of what makes it different.”
That difference is part of the culture instilled by Crouch and carried on by Baxter.
“This has been a few year process trying to transition this program,” Baxter said. “It didn’t start with me, it started with Brent Crouch, the former head coach, who I worked for the last two years. I think Brent did a lot of really good things for this program and I think one of the best things he did was that he helped create a really strong culture that was focused around growth and learning. And we don’t talk about this a lot, but I think the players understand that winning is simply going to be a byproduct if we do our jobs everyday of trying to be mindful to a task and try to get better at something every day.
“I also think that the girls love to play with and for each other every single day and that makes it easy to come into 7 a.m. practice every day and be excited to grow that day. ”
Thompson agrees that there are a couple of factors that have been key for the team.
“I think what stands out is the connection, one, and the consistency, two,” Thompson said. “We have really focused on playing steady no matter what. We don’t want to ride the highs or the lows, we just want to be consistent and steady and do our jobs every play. That has been a really big change. The past couple of years we always talked about it, but I don’t think that we executed it very well. I think we are doing a much better job this year.
“And the connection is really good. We have really good team chemistry, we are all for one, one for all. We are just really together, one goal, one focus. We are just always there for each other on and off the court.”
One of the results of that all-for-one culture has been a balanced attack with five hitters averaging nearly two kills per set, and the team clicking at a .297 hitting efficiency (seventh nationally).
Reghan Pukis leads the way with 3.73 kills per set, while Shayla Sheft (3.11), Izzy Guzik (2.78), Katie Barker (1.96) and Liz Reich (1.82) follow.
“Just being able to spread out the offense and give people more options and putting people in better situations makes everyone’s lives so much easier,” Thompson explained. “And I feel like it helps the team connect also, because when we spread it out everyone is loving the fact that they are doing their jobs and doing them well. Everyone is helping each other.
“It has just been a great part of the team, but I also think that we all have just improved and focused on our personal jobs in general. If we didn’t have a really good back row or serve receive, there wouldn’t be much difference in the offense. So I think everyone has really done a good job improving and working on their separate keys. Along with that, it just helps a lot with offensively being able to spread it out and change things up. We know that there is always growth in what you can do in each play. Just taking each play, play by play has really helped.”
Although the balance is nice, Baxter points out that each facet of the game and each individual’s role in it has gotten the team through the non-conference slate.
“I think we are a good serving team, and the numbers kind of follow that but I also think we do a lot of things in the game well, not necessarily great all of the time, but we have absolutely won matches with our block and our defense and absolutely we have won matches with our passing and our offense,” Baxter said. “I don’t know that there is one part of the game that we hang our hat on. If there is one thing we do hang our hat on, it is we take pride in our ability to remain steady and focused on our job in the moments. And when the offense has been struggling, the defense has picked it up and vice versa.
“We really like to individualize and get really specific in detail about what we need to upgrade as players because we know that if we upgrade ourselves individually, we are upgrading the team as a whole. If everyone does that over and over and over again, they are going to get a little bit better every day and I think that is how you prepare yourself.”
When asked about his big weapons, Pukis and Thompson, Baxter noted each has played their role as has middle blocker Shayla Hoeft.
“Reghan obviously has had some matches where she kind of put us on her back and brought us through, but there have been some matches when we have needed help from other people,” Baxter said. “Our ability to remain balanced offensively is a big time weapon for us and our ability to play fast also is a big weapon for us. We are not the biggest team, but I think we run speed pretty well. That has for sure been a tool for us.
“Sheila Heft, one of our middle blockers, has from Day 1 been a big time offensive producer for us especially running behind and hitting some slides, but she has upgraded her defense a lot since coming in here two or three months ago. She has grown so much as a force at the net in terms of blocking. But I think 1 through 14 we have special individuals on this team who are striving to become great volleyball players and who are striving to be great teammates every day. We are lucky with the group that we have.”
Another aspect of the team’s success has been its ability to see every match as an opportunity regardless of rankings, past success, etc., a skill that will come in handy with a stacked West Coast Conference slate beginning with Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount and also including No. 1 BYU, (RV) San Diego and more.
“We don’t really see conference as a threat at all, not because it is not hard,” Baxter shared. “It is going to be incredibly challenging but we just see it is as a massive challenge. We think things are awesome when they are challenging.
“People say are you nervous, you are playing Pepperdine, they are really good volleyball team. I think the response is that we are really excited to play against a very good Pepperdine volleyball team and to battle and compete with them. You listed off four great teams in our conference that we get to play right away and they can be perceived as threats to most people but to us they are awesome, awesome challenges that we get to face.”
In the end, the team echoes its coach and will continue to focus on reaching their big picture goals of finishing in the top three of the West Coast Conference and making the NCAA Tournament, not on its record.
“We don’t focus on the wins and losses,” Thompson said. “Sure wins are great, and they show how much work we have put in, but you can still have success even if you lose. You are always learning whether you win or lose, so we always value the process of learning. That is a big focus for us. Trying to be better than you were the last play is a big key for us.
“We don’t want to get caught up in any wins or losses, so being in the moment and trying to get better every single day are huge goals for us that are applicable every single day. ”
The Pilots, which received votes in the AVCA poll for the first time in program history on Week 4, will be tested in WCC play beginning Thursday night when they welcome Pepperdine (6-4) to Chiles Center at 10 p.m. ET. A Saturday afternoon meeting (3 p.m. ET) with Loyola Marymount (10-1) follows. Both matches will be streamed live on PortlandPilots.com.
The 12-0 Pilots open up WCC play this Thursday in the Chiles Center against the Pepperdine Waves! Here's what Reghan Pukis and Cali Thompson had to say about their incredible streak! #WeArePortland pic.twitter.com/H8YpDstn1Z
— Portland Pilots (@PortlandPilots) September 20, 2018