When it came to groundbreaking moments for the Portland volleyball program in 2018, the library was getting pretty packed by the time this past Nov. 30 rolled around.
The Pilots had already won a program-record 12 matches in a row to start the year, and on that fateful Friday they were playing in Round 2 of the National Invitational Volleyball Championship, the first postseason berth ever earned by Portland. But the energy and fun of the season was about to be extinguished, as Utah Valley sprinted to a 6-0 lead in the fifth set of their match.
The Pilots called timeout, revisited their key theme of the year, and managed a shocking comeback, eventually winning a drama-packed match (25-19, 16-25, 29-27, 27-29, 19-17) to move to Round 3. Portland (20-12) will play host to UNLV (21-11) on Thursday, Dec. 6 with a slot in the semifinals on the line.
“The message we put across was the same message from all year – we are in total control of our actions on this next point, and I believe we can win this point. And then, let’s do it again,” said first-year head coach Jeff Baxter, who was a collegiate player himself just seven short years ago. “Momentum exists in your head, and it’s not a real thing. It was tough being in that hole, but we framed it as, we were in control of our actions.”
“We had a strong preseason, then conference didn’t go the way we wanted it to, so we made a group decision to go into this tournament with a completely different mindset, to absolutely leave it all out there and prove to ourselves our capabilities,” said senior outside hitter Reghan Pukis, who has a team-high 373 kills on the year. “This team is totally tough, willing to grind, and you saw that against Utah Valley. It doesn’t matter what the score says, we take each point by the point, and work our way forward with relentless dedication.”
It’s been an impressive climb up the charts for Portland, which survived an 0-27 season in 2013 and slowly became more notable within the extremely tough West Coast Conference. Baxter, who came in as an assistant in 2016, saw the program stabilize enough to be a .500 proposition, with this year’s burst including a best-ever total of 20 victories.
This year has also included WCC losing streaks of four and five matches, so Portland long ago understood there would be slumps and struggles to confront. But the roster, which tips to the younger side, has been resilient. Junior middle Katie Barker (276 kills, .342 hitting percentage, 139 blocks) was an all-WCC honorable mention selection; junior Cali Thompson (10.72 assists per set) had 62 assists against Utah Valley; and sophomore Izzy Guzik has 313 kills.
Pukis has been a fundamental voice and physical anchor for it all; her first year in Portland (2016) had her shoulder-to-shoulder with the remaining players who endured that 0-27 team, which gave her a sense of how to bounce back. In 2018, people turned to her regularly for that steadying tone every team needs.
“I’d like to think there is some natural leadership, but I’ve been lucky to play on teams that had awesome leaders around me. My dad has been instrumental in developing my sense of leadership; he was in the military, and he and I talk about it constantly, like multiple times a week,” said Pukis, who played at UNLV her freshman year. “What an influential leader would do in that given moment – my dad has been the most instrumental in shaping that, but I’ve watched great leaders when I was younger. And I’ve been on teams with older players who were poor leaders, and I’ve learned from that, too. This season, I’ve learned the importance of interacting with people on an individual basis; not everyone is the same uniform model.”
“Reghan has been an absolute workhorse, and been there when we go to her at any point of the match. She’s gone above and beyond, setting the tone with her leadership,” Baxter said. “She’s consistently been there and aware of the reality of where we are as a volleyball team, always helping us upgrade. I know we’ve has some ups and downs in the leadership perspective, and it’s a process. She’s grown into that role at an exceptional rate.”
While the thought of Portland volleyball being a factor in postseason play is brand new, the Pilots are hoping it becomes familiar and natural going forward. The difficulty of breaking through the WCC isn’t going away (BYU, San Diego and Pepperdine all reached the NCAA Tournament), but the Pilots are looking to turn that fuzzy sense of momentum in concrete progress.
“There was an eagerness early on, and very obviously this team had high goals and expectations of themselves. They are hungry and like to prove people wrong – they have a massive chip on their shoulder,” Baxter added. “We think we have earned the right to continue playing; we were really excited to get this opportunity. No one on this team is ready to be done. They love playing for and with each other. We try not to focus on external things for validation, but this has solidified some things in terms of this being a successful season.”
“From Day 1, we said this team would play in the postseason, and we’d do everything we needed to do to be the first (from Portland) to make it,” Pukis said. “It’s great to be part of that historical moment, but my entire time at Portland, it’s been a constant upward trajectory. I think it’ll be much cooler if I can look back in five years, and they’ve been in the postseason ever since. That will be the more lasting, rewarding piece. I want it to become the norm."