Portland always put on a show

Rivalry nicknames in college sports are largely reserved for football, in which Old Oaken Buckets and Little Brown Jugs are defended and the Battle for the Iron Skillet and the Red River Rivalry are contested.

But consider one modest suggestion from the world of women's soccer as Portland hosts Santa Clara on Friday (ESPNU, 11 p.m. ET) in a series that stands at 14-14-2 in 27 years of competition.

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Portland home games provide one of the best atmospheres in college soccer.

The Bucket List Derby.

Thanks largely to the efforts of three coaches -- Santa Clara's Jerry Smith, Portland's Garrett Smith and the late Portland legend Clive Charles -- the West Coast Conference rivalry ready for its annual renewal is one of the hidden gems in college sports and a must-see event for soccer fans.

Jerry Smith and Charles built the programs into national powers long before women's soccer gained prominence through international events such as the 1996 Olympics and 1999 World Cup. Indeed, a decade before she dropped to the grass and celebrated the sport's most famous penalty kick, Brandi Chastain was an All-American for the Broncos. Both programs remained fixtures on the national scene even after bigger schools with bigger budgets added the sport or invested more heavily in existing programs. Charles died in 2003, but after more than a decade at his side, Garrett Smith carried on the tradition.

Between 2001 and 2005, the Pilots and Broncos combined for three national championships, including a head-to-head meeting in the championship game won by Portland in 2002.

Find a household name in women's soccer who didn't play her college soccer for 20-time NCAA champion North Carolina, and there's a good chance she played for Portland or Santa Clara: Christine Sinclair, Tiffeny Milbrett, Shannon MacMillan, Chastain, Leslie Osborne and Aly Wagner, to name a few.

The rivalry is never better than at Portland's Merlo Field, home to the biggest crowds in women's soccer six years running, including the kilt-wearing, drum-banging Villa Drum Squad in the student section.

"It's extremely fun," Santa Clara All-American goalkeeper Bianca Henninger said. "I think that's one of the reasons why you play college soccer is to get in front of atmospheres like that. And I think Portland probably provides one of the best in the nation, to be honest. It's just so cool to play in front of that and play in front of people who are devoted to their team, even if it's not [your team].

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It's not an uncommon sight to find fans flying banging drums in kilts at Merlo Field when the Pilots play.

"It's just cool to be in front of that energy, and hopefully you thrive off it because it's an awesome place to be."

What makes this year's meeting all the more compelling is it finds the visitors looking to complete a comeback from the worst season in program history while the hosts try desperately to avoid rock bottom.

Between 1989 and the start of the 2007 season, Santa Clara started and finished every season ranked in the top 10 of the NSCAA Top 25. But after a disappointing end to a 2007 season that began with the Broncos ranked No. 1, the rug was pulled out from beneath their feet. Santa Clara finished the 2008 season with a 4-11-4 record and won just a single conference game. Not only did that represent the most losses in a single season since Jerry Smith took over in 1987, it matched the most losses in any consecutive seasons on his watch.

Henninger grew up a few miles from the Santa Clara campus, attended games every weekend with her dad, waited in line for player autographs and attended summer camps at the school. A freshman during that disastrous season, she found herself living out a nightmare instead of the dream she had watched her entire life.

"One of the reasons I came was to win a national championship, and starting out on that foot was, in all honesty, miserable," Henninger said. "It was just one of those things where it was like the perfect storm the entire season, it felt like. It was frustrating, and we tried to turn the ship around and we just couldn't do it. [Ever since], we really dedicated ourselves to playing more like the traditional Santa Clara and getting out of the slump that we'd been in."

It wasn't the kind of hole that could be escaped in a single season. The Broncos rebounded to win 14 games in 2009 and 13 more in 2010, but they weren't the Santa Clara of old. The team scored more than two goals in a game just five times in those 27 wins. It scraped out narrow wins and even pushed eventual national finalist Stanford to overtime in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament, but it clearly played the role of spoiler, not contender, throughout both campaigns.

More of the same seemed at hand after four draws in a row and a subsequent loss at Stanford in the early going this season. Not all the draws were disappointing, particularly a 1-all result against defending national champion Notre Dame, but Santa Clara nonetheless scored just three goals in those games and sank to No. 21 in the nation. Yet for a senior class that started at the bottom in 2008 and led the slow climb back, this felt different.

"Every year you can always convince yourself you're going to do what you set out to achieve -- it's a thought process, and that's not difficult," Henninger said. "But this year is the first year that I haven't had to have that additional thought process. There's been no convincing. It's the first year I've just felt naturally, without any extra mental preparation or anything like that, like we can achieve what we want to achieve and it's within our reach."

Chalk some of that up to restocking the cupboard. The reigning WCC freshman of the year, Julie Johnston leads the team with eight goals this season, despite spending part of the campaign shoring up the back line. And freshman Sofia Huerta is making a run to succeed Johnston as the conference's top rookie. Huerta has seven goals, all scored since the beginning of October. Behind those two, the Broncos are on pace for their best offensive season since 2006.

Courtesy of Portland Athletics

Despite Portland enduring a down year, there's always something to play for when the Pilots and Broncos meet.

"We all knew she had it," Henninger said of Huerta. "I think game in and game out, she was just trying so hard to make it happen and so hard to be there for us and do her job. I think that kind of got to her a little bit. But we knew, kind of similar to the team, when she hit her stride that she was going to be good. It's pretty obvious now that she's found that stride."

A game under .500 and on the NCAA tournament bubble even if it gets on the right side of that mark, Portland has yet to find its stride. A stunning second-round NCAA tournament exit last season ended a string of four consecutive quarterfinal appearances since winning its second championship in 2005. Four seniors started in the second-round game against Washington, including two defenders and a holding midfielder. That attrition became an even bigger problem than expected when returning outside back Kendall Johnson, an Under-20 national team regular for the United States, was lost for the season with a knee injury, and returning starters Cloee Colohan and Kassi McCluskie battled injuries of their own. After giving up a total of 23 goals in 45 games the past two seasons and never more than 16 in a season over the past decade, the Pilots already have allowed 22 goals this season.

"We thought we had everything kind of penciled in, but not only are we losing the seniors back there, now we're losing the three replacements we had penciled in for back there," Garrett Smith said. "So we don't have a base. We've given up more goals this year than we ever have. When you don't have the base to build off, it's kind of a trickle-down effect. … The reflection is we're not scoring as many goals as we used to, and we're definitely not defending and stopping as many goals as we used to."

A win against Portland for the first time since 2006 would at least symbolically solidify Santa Clara's resurgence. A win against an RPI top-20 team would more than symbolically help save Portland's season.

Both teams have everything to play for Friday night. Then again, they always do in the best rivalry there is in women's college soccer.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer and softball for ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

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