Sometimes all it takes is one player -- one player to elevate the play of everyone else, change the attitude of the entire team, and make plays when the team needs it most. This special player can help shine a spotlight on a program and elevate it to the next level. Michael Vick did it for the Virginia Tech football program, and junior forward Ryan Pore has done it for Tulsa's soccer program.
Of course, it takes more than one person to change a program's fortunes. But when you can find a special player at the glamour position, like Vick was at quarterback and Pore is as a forward, it can validate the program nationally.
Before his arrival, Tulsa had been to just one NCAA Tournament. With him, they've been to the last two, bowing out each time to the defending national champion. He's a candidate for the Hermann Trophy in January, and was twice named Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year -- the first player to ever accomplish the feat.
Ryan Pore has helped put Tulsa on the soccer map, but Tulsa has helped Pore too. Pore wasn't highly sought-after coming out of Madison High in Mansfield, Ohio, despite making the Ohio state record book look like his personal resume. His high school basketball season kept him from several winter showcases that limited his exposure and kept him under the recruiting radar.
Tulsa coach Tom MacIntosh liked Pore's aggressive offensive style and the fact that he was a pure goal scorer. "When he picked up a ball he would go right at people, right at the defenders," MacIntosh says. "He always got himself in the right place. He put defenses on their heels."
Still, it wasn't an easy sell to lure Pore to Tulsa. Although he wasn't getting a lot of attention from colleges, Pore knew he was a Division I player, but didn't know much about the Golden Hurricane. "When recruiting day came none of the big programs called and it kind of hurt, but things happen for a reason," Pore recalls. "I didn't know much about the school, or much of anything about Tulsa because it's so far away. Once I went down there on my recruiting trip I loved the team, I loved the school and coach MacIntosh was great. It was just a great fit for me. I felt like I could get over the distance factor and I did."
MacIntosh felt that Pore would be a good complement to the existing pieces in Tulsa, especially up top with holdover striker Kyle Brown, and he was never more right. A year away from his first 20-goal season, Pore displayed a glimpse of what was to come as a freshman at No. 1 Stanford scoring a pair of goals (including the game-winner) in a 3-1 upset of the Cardinal. That game was Pore's reinforcement that he belonged at the Division I level.
"All of the scouting reports we had on Stanford said they were unbeatable," Pore says. "We found a way to win the game and it was great for the program, and I think that started the trend." The trend was more goals for Pore, and more winning for Tulsa. As a sophomore, he exploded on the national scene racking up 20 goals and nine assists. "It was more of a confidence-type thing," he says of his breakout year. "I was a lot more comfortable; I was much more relaxed on the field. It was another year that Kyle and I had played together, and I thought that me and Kyle could do a lot of good things on the field for each other. I think my confidence level was a lot higher."
Pore's sophomore season ended with the Golden Hurricanes reaching their first NCAA Tournament berth in 11 seasons, and just the second in school history. The momentum of the program was building, but took a hit this past season when Kyle Brown went down with a preseason injury. Pore and Brown had complemented each other so well in 2003 that it had made it difficult for the opposition to lock down both players. However, with Brown out for the year, the fear was that defenses in 2004 would likely be able to concentrate on Pore and take him out of the game.
It turned out Pore was just impossible to stop. He wasn't sneaking up on anyone anymore. Every opponent knew that he would score if he got the opportunities, but they simply couldn't prevent him from getting the chances. "I just went out and played my game and I was scoring goals and getting confidence," he says trying to pinpoint the reason for his success. "I just went out there and scored goals. I don't know really what else to say. The opportunities came and I scored."
"I think the biggest assets I have are my athletic ability and speed," he adds. "Basically, if you don't let me touch the ball then I can't score. I think I make a lot of things happen when I touch the ball. I think not letting me touch the ball is the best thing you can do." Teams were unable to keep Pore from getting touches on the ball as he again had another monster year, putting up another 20-goal season and leading the nation in goals and scoring.
Pore has also become a more complete player during his time in Tulsa, able to distribute the ball for assists as well as score (after just one assist as a freshman, he recorded 20 over the next two seasons). The Golden Hurricanes piggy-backed on Pore's success, advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year and earning their first NCAA Tourney wins in school history before bowing to eventual champ Indiana.
Star players generally deflect the attention and praise to their teammates, especially in a game that has 10 other teammates on the field. While Pore does this, he also recognizes that he needs to be the face of Tulsa -- that the attention he attracts inevitably leads to attention for the team. "All of the accolades I am receiving are a token of how well our team has done and how well our program has come along," Pore says. "If I can get these honors to get better recruits or help the program as much as I can, I'll do it. I'm glad people are looking at Tulsa and looking at them and thinking that they might be a powerhouse someday in soccer."
Pore has helped people to think of Tulsa, Okla., for soccer the same way they think of Blacksburg, Va., for college football. Whether or not Pore wins the Hermann Trophy on Jan. 7, and whether or not he returns for his senior season at Tulsa as pro leagues come calling, he is still the player that made the difference in the program. Because of him, players know that they can come to Tulsa and compete for the national championship and have a shot at the Hermann Trophy. They also know that they could be the next Ryan Pore, which is a pretty high compliment.
"It takes more than one quality player, but he's someone who can score goals and make things happen, and big moments don't scare him," coach MacIntosh says. "He's just different. Players like him don't come around very often. He's pretty special."
Adam Zundell works for the University of Maryland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org