Chasing hardcourt history

Considering the high number of questions and concerns swirling around the Portland State women’s basketball team coming into the season, there were few reasons to be optimistic.

Considering the high number of questions and concerns swirling around the Portland State women’s basketball team coming into the season, there were few reasons to be optimistic.

Portland State had a new head coach, whose Washington State team struggled during her five-year stint, a complete roster overhaul, including six new players with five freshmen among them, and a formidable non-conference schedule that included Gonzaga, the University of California, Davis, Southern California and Hawaii, to name a few.

And the Vikings’ season was complicated further when the Stott Center flooded, forcing the team to relocate practices and two games in December.

But despite these challenges, the Vikings sit at 12-3 and are turning heads, winning games and playing with a confidence that has rendered most speechless.

“We are so excited just to be in the moment, we try not to look behind us or in front of us too far,” Murrell said.

All this is being accomplished at a pace unfamiliar to those who frequent the South Park Blocks. And a look back at history reveals only one team on par with this year’s Vikings team: the 1994-95 team that reached the Division II National Championship Game.

The beginning of 1996 brought a new era of basketball to Portland State as the Vikings joined the Big Sky Conference, effectively moving to the Division I level.

In just over a decade since the move, the program has had only one team that finished with a winning percentage above .500, the mark of a completely average squad.

More recently, in the 2004-05 campaign, the team stumbled to a 3-23 record, the worst in the program’s 30-year history. This lackluster season came before former head coach Charity Elliott was able to right the ship, guiding Portland State to back-to-back 12-win campaigns over the past two seasons.

This year Portland State is off to its best start since moving to Division I and best overall start since 1994-95, when the Vikings finished 26-6 and lost to North Dakota State in the Division II National Championship Game.

The dynamic duo of Kim Manifesto and Kristi Smith, who combined to set 11 team records and were both named All-Americans two consecutive seasons, led the last great Portland State women’s basketball squad.

Teri Mariani has worn the Portland State green and white for over 35 years, serving as the interim athletic director twice and head softball coach for 29 years. The Viking legend says she remembers the 1994-95 version of the Vikings well.

“That was a terrific team. A very solid bunch of student athletes,” Mariani said.

Manifesto and Smith still hold the honor as the only women’s basketball players to have their numbers retired at Portland State. Manifesto led the Vikings with 18 points per game, and Smith hauled in a team-high 8.5 boards per contest during the 1994-95 season.

Since nearly reaching the peak of Division II basketball, the Vikings have tottered at .500 or worse every season.

“The move from Division II to Division I has been tough,” Mariani said. “Success breeds success, and getting that core group is the key. That’s something that we may have struggled with in the past, but certainly is changing now.”

Despite the potential setbacks, it appears the Vikings have the core group and talent to establish a winning tradition now. In similar fashion to that terrific team of the past, a pair of talented players in sophomore guard Claire Faucher and junior forward Kelsey Kahle lead this year’s squad.

Faucher leads the nation in assists and has quickly mastered Murrell’s fast-paced offense, while Kahle is second in the Big Sky in points per game, tallying a touch fewer than 18 per game.

Murrell, who was Portland State’s lead assistant and recruiting coordinator from 1996 to 1998, modestly defers the credit to her team.

“This is the most special team that I have ever coached, or ever been a part of,” Murrell said.

Despite those less-than-stellar preseason expectations and humble approach the team and coaching staff continue to take, it is tough to ignore the success the Vikings have enjoyed on a historical scale.

Two wins at the Stott Center this week would place the Vikings in an ideal position to challenge perennial power Montana for the Big Sky championship later this year. Led by Murrell, the team’s success hasn’t changed their attitude.

“We try really hard to just take things one day at a time and not look past anybody. We still have so much to work on,” Murrell said.

Improvement has come quickly, but with a solid foundation in place, the once paltry program looks to restore credibility and pride to the South Park Blocks for many seasons to come.