Rebuilding for championships: Viking sports 2005-2006

This year in sports had a lot to live up to. Last year the Vikings won three Big Sky championships (including one in men’s basketball) and proved that they no longer belong in the conference gutter. In 2005-06, the job for each sport was to maintain.

While some sports, like men’s basketball, struggled through a rebuilding year, it was some oft-overlooked sports that took the spotlight this year.

A lot of people think PSU’s football program is a joke, but don’t tell that to Joe Rubin, the Vikings’ star senior running back. Rubin was lights-out all year. He gained 113 yards in the season opener at Oregon State and never looked back. Three games later, Rubin absolutely demolished Northern Colorado as he rushed for five touchdowns and 362 yards to become the leading rusher in Division I-AA at the time. Rubin finished with 1,754 yards and 17 touchdowns in 11 games.

In the midst of Rubin’s stellar season, the volleyball team was putting together its own dominant run with a trio of talented players leading the way. Jessica Vanzant, Stephanie Lavigne and Jessica Brodie set the tone for the Vikings’ first 20-win season since 1995. Lavigne, the Viks’ senior setter, finished the year second on the all-time assists list with 3,821, while Brodie finished with a team-high 496 kills and 61 aces.

The team would go on to finish 21-9, good for second in the Big Sky, behind regular season and tournament champ Sacramento State. Head coach Jeff Mozzochi won the Big Sky Coach of the Year award, while Lavigne took the Coaches Player of the Year award. Vanzant and Brodie were named Co-Offensive Players of the Year.

Since when was volleyball this exciting to watch? Possibly never in the history of PSU. Making tournament runs will do wonders for a program. There is no doubt about that. The number of games a team wins isn’t nearly as important as that team’s ability to give itself a chance to capture the ultimate prize, a chance at the NCAA playoffs.

Perhaps that is something that many fans forget. Portland State plays Division I basketball, volleyball, softball, soccer, wrestling, track and field, cross country and Division I-AA football. This school is not a D-III podunk program. More and more, PSU is proving it can compete at the highest level.

Take, for instance, two wins by the men and women’s basketball teams. In late November, SEC team Arkansas came into the Stott Center expecting an easy win over a women’s team that went 3-23 in 2004-05. I covered that team. It was a miserable year. But you could tell, even then, that there were better days ahead.

Those days started with freshman forward Kelsey Kahle’s 24 points and 15 rebounds in a 67-65 win over a bigger, faster and way more legit team. The tone was set that Saturday with a win that propelled the Vikings to a season in which they quadrupled their wins and made the Big Sky tournament. Kudos goes to second-year head coach Charity Elliott, who flat out refused to let her team wallow in mediocrity.

The men’s team had a similar win over Oregon in December, proving that losing six seniors, including beloved star Seamus Boxley, would not keep them down for long.

The Vikings battled all night long with the Ducks two days after Christmas down in Eugene, eventually stealing a 54-52 win and proving that these new-look Viks’ best days are ahead, not behind. With a solid coach in Ken Bone and recruiting based in the Northwest, look for the Stott Center to fill up on Thursdays and Saturdays this winter.

The most surprising team from this year was easily the softball team, which had just lost head coach Teri Mariani to retirement after 29 years guiding the program (more if you include her four years as a player). But Mariani had left new head coach Amy Hayes with a team ready for a breakout year.

Sophomore pitcher and slugger Mandy Hill won 24 games and led her team, batting .322 with 12 homers and 48 RBIs. Two years ago the Vikings set a record with 27 home runs. This year the team had 49 long balls and made its first ever appearance at the NCAA Regional tourney, hosted at Oregon State. Constant improvement. Former athletic director Tom Burman would be proud.

There is not a school in Division I sports that does more with less than PSU. Look for nothing but more wins, more tourney berths and more impressive stats in 2006-07. I can’t give you a better reason to keep watching than that.