Can BYU women soccer thrive immediately in the Big 12?

BYU coach Jennifer Rockwood speaks to the women’s soccer team after a scoreless draw with Ohio State at South Field in Provo, August 21, 2017. After one more year in the WCC, Rockwood will lead the Cougars into the Big 12 in 2023. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo)

Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

PROVO – Living on the east coast and scoring in buckets with Washington Spirit in the National Women’s Soccer League, Ashley Hatch admits she doesn’t make it back to Utah as often as she or her Utah native husband might otherwise like, which is why the chance to play in front of friends and family with the US women’s national team at Rio Tinto Stadium is special for the BYU alum.

But whenever she does find herself in the Beehive State, there’s one place she always goes. Back to Provo, back to her old stomping grounds, and back to the one person she always sees: her old coach Jennifer Rockwood, who first took the BYU women’s soccer program into the NCAA ranks in 1995 and has been there ever since.

“Jen is a legend, and I am so happy for her and for the program, for all they’ve accomplished this past year,” said Hatch, who followed closely as the Cougars put together a historic 17-5-2 season and a run to the national championship match. “It’s definitely deserving. She puts in a lot of work with that team, and deserves everything. I’m excited to follow all their success.”

The Cougars will try to repeat that run from last year, even without the likes of current NWSL pros Mikayla Colohan and Cameron Tucker or longtime starting goalkeeper Cassidy Smith. But the foundation that includes Jamie Shepherd, Natalee Wells, Olivia Wade and Brecken Mozingo keeps moving forward.

And with Rockwood at the helm, Hatch is confident in the team’s next big move.

A lot will be made starting Wednesday – if it hasn’t already – of the Cougars’ move to the Big 12 when the university hosts the final football media day of the FBS independence era at the BYU broadcasting building. There’s still one year left of independence – and for Olympic sports like women’s soccer, one year left in the West Coast Conference – but in many ways, the program has to prepare for the Big 12 now.

And for BYU soccer, they already have.

Under Rockwood, the Cougars have built one of the top soccer programs in the country, with a .714 winning percentage and an NCAA Tournament berth in 20 of the last 25 years, to go along with 27 All-Americans, five MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalists , and one finalist in Colohan for college soccer’s version of the Heisman Trophy last year.

BYU's Mikayla Colohan passes the ball against Portland during the Cougars' regular-season finale, Saturday, April 17, 2021 in Provo.
BYU’s Mikayla Colohan passes the ball against Portland during the Cougars’ regular-season finale, Saturday, April 17, 2021 in Provo. (Photo: Nate Edwards, BYU Photo)

They’ve also gone toe-to-toe with the best programs in the country, and that won’t change this fall, with nonconference tilts beginning August 13 at North Carolina and home dates with Alabama, Arkansas and Utah to go along with road trips to Colorado and Ohio State, among others.

“I think BYU’s style of play will fit right in (well in the Big 12), to be honest,” Hatch said. “They’re a very attack-minded team, very aggressive, very fast, and I think they will have a lot of success.

“Girls coming to play for BYU can expect a lot when they are playing in the Big 12.”

A perennial top-25 team in the coaches’ poll, BYU women’s soccer has mostly shed the oft-cited “mid-major” label assigned to schools from outside the Power Five conferences, or Power Six with the Big East in some sports like basketball – and in many ways, so has its conference.

In last year’s final coaches’ rankings, three teams from the West Coast Conference were ranked in the top 25, compared to three from the Pac-12, two from the American Athletic Conference, and just one from the Big 12 – No. 9 TCU.

The Horned Frogs are well known to BYU from the duo’s days in the Mountain West, and last year’s regular-season Big 12 champs still recruit heavily in BYU territory, including California and parts of Utah like recent Waterford standout Seven Castain. They also have just six NCAA Tournament appearances – all since joining the Big 12 – including Round of 16 berths in the two most recent tournaments.

Beyond TCU, the depth of consistent NCAA Tournament teams in the Big 12 is hardly bottomless. In some ways, the WCC’s top-three of BYU, Santa Clara and Pepperdine may be even better.

Texas boasts one of the most impressive historical resumes in the league, with 15 NCAA Tournament appearances since 2001 and four trips to the Round of 16. But the Longhorns are leaving sometime between 2023 and 2025 with Oklahoma to join the SEC, and will take that history with them.

But compare that to No. 4 Santa Clara, a two-time NCAA Tournament champion with 12 College Cup appearances dating back to 1989. Or even Portland, a program that finished just fifth in the WCC a year ago but also boasts alumni like Shannon MacMillan, Christine Sinclair and Megan Rapinoe from the US and Canadian women’s national teams – as well as two national titles, eight College Cup berths and 14 national quarterfinal appearances.

Even No. 13 Pepperdine, a relative newcomer to the national stage, boasts 11 NCAA Tournament appearances and three Round of 16 berths in 24 seasons under head coach Tim Ward.

And, of course, there’s BYU, which finished last season ranked second nationally after falling to Florida State on penalty kicks in the College Cup final.

“We’re fortunate to play in the WCC, which is a very good conference for women soccer with Santa Clara and Pepperdine also in the top 15,” Rockwood told BYUtv recently. “Our conference continues to get better, top to bottom, and we have one more year to really prepare us for that. But we’ve got a great nonconference schedule… and we anticipate being ready for the Big 12 in 2023.

“The same expectations will follow us when we head into the new conference.”

There’s still a lot to be decided about BYU’s future in the Big 12, including just how many conference games the Cougars’ Olympic sports will play annually. Rockwood hinted that an imbalanced schedule is possible, and it’s likely that teams won’t play each other more than once per season, not an annual home-and-home arrangement.

It’s also becoming more likely that Texas and Oklahoma stick around the league through at least the 2023-24 season, marking a 14-team conference that also includes Cincinnati, Houston and UCF. The Longhorns and Sooners are not contracted to join the SEC until 2025.

That’s not to say, of course, that joining the conference isn’t worth it. The addition of resources and inclusion in the Power Five is worth any jump. But it might not change as much as you’d think about a women’s soccer power on the Wasatch Front.

Still, it’s a positive step forward.

“I think it’s a good, positive change, being able to play against quality teams like that will only help us get better,” Hatch said. “I think it will only help us get better, and will help Jen in the recruiting process – girls who want to play in a bigger conference will have that option to go to BYU.

“It opens a lot of doors for BYU sports, in general, but especially the women’s soccer team.”

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A proud graduate of Syracuse University, Sean Walker has covered BYU for since 2015, while also mixing in prep sports, education, and anything else his editors assign him to do.

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