Nick Denley’s grit and inspirational journey help carry Portland Pilots to NCAA Tournament

Nick Denley’s dream of playing soccer for the college he grew up supporting was never further away, literally and figuratively, than in March 2020, when he found himself stuck at the Canadian border.

Denley was lightly recruited out of McMinnville High School and eventually signed with Division II Concordia University. When Concordia abruptly dissolved in February 2020, his soccer ambitions pushed him north to Simon Fraser in British Columbia. A month later, he drove to Canada to finalize his enrollment.

But there was one problem. COVID-19 shutdowns were beginning and Canadian border officials wouldn’t let Denley enter the country. He didn’t know what to do, so he turned around and headed back to McMinnville, wondering whether his college soccer career had suddenly ended.

As Denley cruised south, his phone buzzed with a surprising and random call. It was University of Portland coach Nick Carlin-Voigt, unaware of Denley’s Canadian troubles, reaching out to offer him a roster spot as a walk-on.

“I was really, really glad he made that call,” Denley said.

Fast forward two-and-a-half years and Denley has made his dream a reality. He made it to The Bluff, navigated even more obstacles, earned a scholarship and blossomed into a starter at left fullback for the No. 18 Pilots (12-2-3), who host UC Riverside at 7 p.m. Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

It has not been an easy journey — Denley missed two seasons with a knee injury — but Carlin-Voigt says he personifies the gritty mentality that has carried the Pilots to their best regular-season record since 2018. So before Denley steps onto the pitch at Merlo Field on Thursday, he will take a moment to reflect on his unlikely voyage.

“It just makes me grateful for what I do,” he said of his journey. “Because I get messages from past friends and teammates and they’re like, ‘Good luck tonight,’ and not many of them play anymore. And I think they would really die to play at this level.”


Just two years ago, Denley might have said the same about himself. The call from Carlin-Voigt was perhaps even more surprising than Concordia shutting down out of the blue.

After all, Denley had tried to play for the Pilots in the past. He grew up attending occasional matches at the school and even participated in an identification camp hosted by UP when he was a senior at McMinnville. Carlin-Voigt said he remembers watching Denley play, but he didn’t offer the undersized player a spot.

“Bad mistake by the coach at the time,” Carlin-Voigt said, joking. “And that would be me.”

Andrew Duvall, who coached Denley for four years at the club level for Portland FC and later as an assistant at Concordia, said he wasn’t surprised that Denley didn’t attract Division I interest. Denley is listed as 5-foot-7, 160 pounds, and Duvall said he was even smaller as a high-schooler. But Duvall never doubted that Denley would ended up proving coaches wrong.

“I have a buddy that … looks at kids like Nick Denley, in the world of sports, specifically, he calls kids like Nick survivors,” Duvall said. “And the word that I use is winner, but the word that he uses is survivor, because those kids, no matter what kind of competition they enter into, they always find a way to actually come out on top. And Nicky … he’s just kind of one of those survivor, winner kids.”

Denley showed that at Concordia, where he started each of his first two seasons, primarily at midfielder. But on Feb. 10, 2020, he awoke to an email saying classes had been canceled for the day. A few hours later, a meeting of all Concordia students was called and news came that the university would shut down at the end of the semester.

Denley wanted to keep playing college soccer, he just didn’t know whether he would have the option. Duvall, however, never doubted.

“As hard as it was to see the program and the university dissolve, we knew the majority of our guys were going to end up in good situations,” Duvall said, “and Nick was one of those.”

When Carlin-Voigt offered Denley a walk-on spot at UP, he didn’t sugarcoat it. It would be a big adjustment from the Division II level, he stressed, and playing time would not be guaranteed. But Denley didn’t hesitate to accept the offer.

“He told me straight up that of course it would be a challenge, that this is a top-tier program and so I would have to work my way in,” Denley said. “And that was exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted a challenge.”

Denley not only had to get used to the speed of training at UP, but also change positions into more of a defensive role. It took time to adjust, but Denley eventually did what he’s always done — find a way to contribute. The 2020 fall season had been postponed because of COVID, but Denley entered the spring feeling like he had a shot to earn regular playing time.

Then, on the third day of practices, Denley sprinted for a ball during a drill, planted his foot in the turf and collapsed. He knew right away the diagnosis wouldn’t be good, and he was correct. He had ruptured the ACL and MCL in his knee, and because of the reshuffled calendar, he would be forced to miss each of the next two seasons.

Denley called the injury “a major setback in my life.” But, true to form, he dedicated himself to rehab and set his sights on making his Pilots debut in 2022.

“I think there’s always an opportunity to come back weaker or stronger after an injury like that,” Carlin-Voigt said. “And he came back stronger, and more determined, and more resilient, and grittier and more appreciative.”


Denley recovered from the knee injury the same way he’s always overcome his lack of size and made the transition from Division II to Division I, with sheer effort. When the subject of Denley’s journey arises, the first thing Carlin-Voigt and Duvall mention is work ethic.

Carlin-Voigt said the team tracks which players cover the most ground and sprint the most during matches, and Denley is usually among the top three. Yet when the coaching staff gives players a day off after matches to recover, it’s not uncommon to spot Denley on the training field, putting himself through a conditioning session or working on free kicks.

“He’s often the first guy on the field hitting balls and the last guy to leave,” Carlin-Voigt said.

Duvall believes Denley’s appetite for training stems from his competitiveness. He can’t stand to lose, so he does whatever it takes to make sure he wins.

“If it was something as simple as doing a series of sprints at the end of training or playing in a small-sided game, Nicky was going to win,” Duvall said. “And he just, he was somebody that everybody on the team wanted to be teammates with, because they knew that he was going to compete in everything that the team was doing, be it a training session, a match, a team bonding experience. If we were playing, like, World Cup jeopardy or something as a team bonding experience, Nick was going to find a way to win, because he just had that mentality.”

Not only has Denley used his tenacity to carve out a spot in the starting lineup, Carlin-Voigt said, his competitive and work ethic have rubbed off on teammates. He leads by example for a scrappy squad that Carlin-Voigt calls “blue collar” and a defense that has held 13 of 17 opponents to one goal or less this season.

“I’ll be frank with you, I am not the most talented player on the starting 11, if not more,” Denley said. “And I know that. But I think because there’s talent other places, I think my work ethic is probably what can help me and help the team collectively, because we do have to run a lot, and so I just try to do the simple things and get the ball to the people who can make the real difference up front.”

It might be unfair to call Denley the heartbeat of the Pilots, because they have several players in key leadership roles. But Denley’s dogged effort and team-first attitude have earned him love and respect of everyone on the roster. This was obvious when Carlin-Voigt presented Denley a scholarship.

Carlin-Voigt decided to have some fun with the moment. So, he enlisted a campus security officer to visit the end of a training session claiming that someone wearing UP soccer gear had been spotted stealing a bike. At first, Denley thought one of his teammates might be in trouble. But when the officer called him forward, he raised an eyebrow.

“I knew I didn’t steal a bike, because I had just gotten my bike fixed after months, and I was so excited,” Denley said with a laugh. “And yeah, at that point, when I saw the letter, I knew.”

When Denley read that he would be receiving a full scholarship, his teammates screamed and swarmed him.

“To see all the guys on the team really embrace him in that moment was awesome,” Carlin-Voigt said. “I think some of the guys were fooled, other guys probably caught onto us. But Nick’s the type of guy that, if he found $10 on the sidewalk, he’d figure out whose it was and try to return it. So there was no chance that there was any funny business with the bike. But it was funny and it was a good team moment.”


Denley said he occasionally reflects on his winding path to UP and a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. It hasn’t been easy, but he says he’s thankful for it, because it has helped shape him into the player he is today.

“I don’t think he forgets where he came from,” Carlin-Voigt said. “So while he’s been a starter on a team that’s been ranked as high as sixth in the country … I don’t think at all any of his habits or his humility or how he’s grounded or any of his core personality traits, those haven’t changed.”

As the Pilots prepare for the postseason, they will look to channel Denley’s grit. If they are going to advance to the second week of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009 — or perhaps even make a run to the College Cup — they will have to beat teams from bigger, better-funded Power Five athletic departments.

They need only look at Denley’s journey, from Division II player to walk-on with a torn ACL to full-scholarship starter, for a reminder of what hard work can accomplish.

“He came in, he walked on, he earned everything, nothing was given to him,” Carlin-Voigt said of Denley. “That’s our mantra this year, too, earned not given, and I think he symbolizes and represents what the team is all about.”

— Mitchell Forde, for The Oregonian/OregonLive

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