August 12, 2020 

‘The star of the team was the team’: WCC champion Portland prepares for 2020-21

For second-year head coach Michael Meek, it’s not just about accolades — though the Pilots had lots of those — but how the team adapts to adversity to succeed

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Portland head coach Michael Meek speaks to his players during a home game at the Chiles Center, Portland, Ore. (UP Athletics)

Michael Meek wanted to make one thing extremely clear.

His team, and each of his players on the 2020 West Coast Conference-champion Portland Pilots, are just trying to be the best version of themselves.

“Last year’s team got along so well and cared so much about each other and each other’s successes and failures,” Meek told The Next. “They really, truly were a group that just did things for each other, and knowing we have a lot back, I feel, obviously, really good about that aspect. It’s one thing to win a league tournament, it’s a whole ‘nother thing to try to stay at the top.”

The Pilots’ story isn’t just about how they were picked to finish last in the WCC this past season and went on to win the conference tournament. It’s also about a team that, despite its youth and a brand-new head coach in Meek, saw past the expectations that were placed on them, embraced what they had, and rose to the top.

Now, they’re back for more.

“We’re well aware that our league is incredibly tough,” Meek said. “I think it’s going to be a great year for our league as far as … the improvements that have been made and really how young our league, in particular, was, so we do feel great about how this last season went. But I feel like as a program, it’s kind of a brand-new season.”

Last season, Portland notched its first 20-win campaign since 1996-97, and its first winning season since 2010-11, when it went 16-15. Both were under Jim Sollars, who led the program from 1986 (when Portland joined Division I) until his retirement in 2014.

Until this year, the Sollars era was also the last time the Pilots qualified for an NCAA Tournament — that was as an at-large bid in 1997. (They’d previously earned bids in 1994, 1995 and 1996.) What the Pilots achieved at the WCC Tournament this past March wasn’t just a triumph for the team, but program history.

“It really was a bittersweet week,” Meek said. “We really felt as a group that we had made a lot of improvements, and that it was just one of those teams that never got too up or down based on wins and losses, and they just kept trying to improve to get better. … Of course, we wanted to play and we were disappointed [that the NCAA Tournament was canceled] but at the same time very grateful for the season we had.”

Replicating that success again this season, and all the challenges that will entail will be helped by some consistency. Portland returns four starters to a team that went 21-11 overall and 11-7 in the WCC. It lost one senior, Kate Andersen, but returns WCC Newcomer of the Year and all-conference first-team selection Alex Fowler, who in her freshman season led the conference in scoring.

Alex Fowler shoots in an exhibition game against Lewis & Clark on Nov. 2, 2019, at the Chiles Center, Portland, Ore. (UP Athletics)

Portland’s offensive strength — it also led the WCC in scoring as a team — isn’t just about Fowler, though, despite Meek’s belief that she could be even more aggressive offensively. It’s that every player, led by top scorers Fowler and rising junior Haylee Andrews (both from Townsville, Australia), is willing to work as part of a well-functioning unit.

“It’s really nice having a player like [Fowler]. I think the rest of the team feeds off that unselfishness,” Meek said. “And I think that was one of the things that helped make this last team so great is that they truly didn’t care who got the credit.

“The star of the team was the team.”

That philosophy isn’t just a truthful reflection of last season’s success. Although Meek acknowledged that, naturally, each year’s team takes on its own character, the team-first mentality is something he prioritizes in recruiting, too.

In order to balance out the loss of Andersen and three other players, this season the Pilots welcome Pepperdine transfer Rose Pflug, who sat out last season and is now eligible; Lucy Cochrane, a transfer from Oregon whose commitment was announced on Aug. 1; and four freshmen (including a set of twins).

One of those freshmen is the Oregon Gatorade Player of the Year and 2020 Oregon 6A high school player of the year, McKelle Meek — the coach’s daughter.

Meek, the coach, said he’s excited for the opportunity to have McKelle on his team, something that hasn’t happened since she was a child. Though their paths have diverged since then, the two still maintain a healthy balance between basketball and family. This relationship, along with the impressive connection the Pilots players have, drew McKelle back to play for her father.

“It’s so cool to see the bonds the girls have formed. I think they are super close as a team, and so I am super excited to be able to join that,” McKelle told KPTV in May.

“I’m probably as excited as anything … to have her be around such a great group of teammates,” Meek, the coach, said. “And so it’s really exciting, and I think she’s excited about that too, as much as anything, just to be a part of the group and to be a part of the team.”

With Southridge High School (Beaverton, Ore.), McKelle won two state championships and was described as “one of the most feared scorers in the state.” Her senior season, she averaged 23 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 2.6 steals per game.

“I think it showed a lot in the successes of her high school team … that she truly cares about the success of the team,” Meek said. “So I think she fits really well into the [Pilots] in that regard.”

Cochrane, the Oregon transfer, will be the Pilots’ fourth Australian player, along with Fowler, Andrews, and rising sophomore Keeley Frawley. As a freshman, she appeared in 18 games for the Ducks, who finished No. 2 in the country and got 10 or more minutes five times. The 6’5 forward also shot 10-of-16 from the field, or 62.5%, and registered nine blocks.

Meek was impressed by Cochrane’s skillset on both ends of the floor, especially her ability to effect change inside and on the perimeter. But that all would have meant little if not for the personality she brings to Portland.

“[She is] another just great, kind person that cares about her teammates,” Meek said. “And so I’m just excited about [her] character … what she’s going to bring in that regard is always at the forefront of our recruitment, but also, she definitely is just a great all-around player.”

March 10, 2020; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Portland Pilots head coach Michael Meek celebrates cutting the net against the San Diego Toreros after the WCC Basketball Championships at Orleans Arena. (UP Athletics)

The Pilots, who placed fourth in the WCC after the 2019-20 regular season, are one of the most intact teams entering 2020-21 — only Loyola Marymount (who finished 10th), Saint Mary’s (seventh) and San Francisco (ninth) also return four or more starters. Being picked to finish last propelled Portland to some degree, Meek said, but the toughness of the WCC year after year can’t be discounted.

Nor can Portland’s laser focus on its own goals, an area where the team made a strong statement in Meek’s first season.

“Like all 10 teams in our league, our goal was to try to win the tournament, and that’s something that we’ll want to continue to strive for every year, is that we improve every day to a point that we can make a run to be competitive in the league tournament,” Meek said. But, he added, “there’s so many things that go into that based on injuries, and what teams are playing well at the end, and what kind of rhythm we’re in.”

Portland certainly faced adversity last season. Liana Kaitu’u, who started seven of 26 games as a freshman and was poised to become a regular starter as a sophomore, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the sixth game. Josie Matz, a reliable bench player in her first two seasons, sat out to rehab an injury. Pflug, who was declared immediately eligible by the NCAA, opted for a medical redshirt, while Andrews missed five games early in the season due to a rib injury.

But to Meek’s second point, the Pilots entered the WCC Tournament having won four of their last five games — the regular-season finale, a home loss to No. 10 Gonzaga, was the only blip — and then took down Pacific, Gonzaga and San Diego in Las Vegas to win it all.

Because for this team, being able to showcase its strengths even as it adapts to adversity keeps the whole machine going.

“By the end of the year, you don’t know what type of team you may or may not [have],” Meek said. “And so at the end of the day, we don’t put value on anything other than trying to be the best version of ourselves.”

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