New players, new coach, new team

Shannon Bjelland graduated from high school early, leaving in December to gray shirt with the soccer team during their spring training and scrimmage schedule.

Bjelland committed to PSU in the fall and learned the night before she was to sign a letter of intent that former coach Tara Erickson had accepted the head coach position at the University of Oregon.

With every chance to back out, Bjelland decided to forgo high school dances in favor of rained out practices. “I was pretty bummed to hear Tara was leaving,” Bjelland said. “But I chose the school for the school and I wanted to move on.”

The opportunity to come to Portland and bond with her new teammates during spring training was too great for the native of Bozeman, Mont., even though she would be facing a new coach and a new city. The transition has been relatively smooth, though Bjelland admitted to some expected “huge culture shock” that her coaches and teammates are helping her overcome.

Nothing seems shocking about Bjelland, who has so far justified her leap to PSU through an impressive start to spring training. “She’s very strong,” Head Coach Tim Bennett said. “She’s a technically good athlete, very athletic.”

Bjelland called coming to PSU “a huge step up” and knows that she has to raise the level of her game to compete. “I have to improve,” Bjelland said.

The rest of the team will need to keep improving alongside Bjelland after they suffered through a 3-0 rout at the hands of the University of Portland. “The fair way to assess it is the amount of improvement made over 90 minutes,” Bennett said. “We were a much better team in the last 10 minutes than the first 10.”

Battling a team that will surely be nationally ranked come fall is the ultimate litmus test for PSU, according to Bennett. “It’s a great way for us to assess what we have,” he said.

What Bennett and newly hired assistant coach Laura Schott have is a veteran team that will get better the longer they play together. Several players already distinguished themselves in the scrimmage against UP.

Senior midfielder Shelly Crabtree has emerged as just one of a slew of senior leaders on a team rich with experience. “Shelly is very consistent,” Bennett said. “She’s got good vision and a great work ethic.” Crabtree started eight games last season and scored one point, on an assist.

Kara Norris is a player that Bennett identifies as overlooked and unheralded after a 2004 season that saw Norris get only limited action. The junior defender played in just six games last season, after playing in 17 contests in 2003.

Also returning is the Vikings Golden Boot winner from last season, junior forward Jamie Blakesly. Blakesly had a monster year in 2004, racking up eight goals and 17 total points with three game-winning shots. The Viks relish the return of their most explosive scorer, who still has two years of eligibility left. “She just a very creative player,” Bennett said of his star striker.

Despite the wealth of talent on the team, there is still room for improvement, mostly on the defensive end. “We need to have detailed changes in our individual defense,” Bennett said. “We need to take time so we can go forward.”

When the Vikings look forward on their calendar they will find three more tune-up matches, with the next two scrimmages taking place at the PSU community field against Western Washington and Western Oregon. Their final match is against Oregon State on April 29 and will be the last official action until preparation for the Big Sky season starts in August.

Though it may be too early to tell, this Viking team should compete for a regular season championship and a run in the Big Sky tourney that might culminate in an elusive NCAA College Cup berth come next fall.

Keeping Score: the next three matches
April 10 vs. University of Portland L 0-3
April 23 vs. Western Washington (3 p.m. at the Stott Field)
April 24 vs. Western Oregon (12 p.m. at the Stott Field)
April 29 vs. Oregon State (5 p.m., TBA)