Provo • This looks from afar like a rebuilding season for the BYU women’s soccer program.
The Cougars have to replace two of the most prolific scorers to ever don the navy blue and white — Ashley Hatch and Michele Murphy Vasconcelos. Midfielders Elena Medeiros and Paige Hunt Barker and defender Ella Johnson also are gone.
Coach Jennifer Rockwood isn’t buying that line of thinking, however.
“We graduated a lot of great players, and some real special attacking players,” she said. “But I can just feel how much the returning players want to do better this year than we did last year.”
That’s hoping for a lot because the Cougars made it to the third round of the NCAA tournament last season before losing 1-0 to South Carolina. They ended the season ranked No. 9 in the nation.
The 2017 Cougars are ranked No. 8 in the United Soccer Coaches preseason poll and begin their season Friday at No. 16 Oklahoma (8 p.m. MDT) in Norman, Okla.
BYU WOMEN’S SOCCER
Key losses • F Ashley Hatch, MF Michele Murphy Vasconcelos, MF Elena Medeiros
Key returners • D Taylor Campbell Isom, F Elise Flake, GK Hannah Clark, F Nadia Gomes, F Madie Lyons Mathews, D Stephanie Ney, MF Bizzy Bowen
Key newcomers • MF Mikayla Colohan, F Cameron Tucker, GK Savanna Empey
Season opener • At No. 16 Oklahoma, 8 p.m. MDT Friday
Home opener • vs. Ohio State at South Field, 5:30 p.m. Aug. 21
They will play eight Power 5 conference opponents, including No. 9 UCLA, No. 20 Utah and No. 25 Colorado, before the WCC season starts Sept. 29 against San Diego. They will travel to Penn State on Aug. 18 and play against Ohio State at South Field in their home opener Aug. 21. Oregon State, Arizona and Kansas also are on the nonconference docket.
The non-league schedule is part of Rockwood’s plan to improve BYU’s RPI and get them ready for another NCAA tournament run.
“Super excited” about the schedule, Rockwood said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. We are here to win big games. We just don’t want to go play. We want to see how good we can be, and in order to see how good you can be at the national level, you have to play the best teams.”
That includes going to Penn State for the second straight year after the Cougars stunned the No. 5 Nittany Lions 3-2 in State College, Pa., last year.
“They needed a game, and I jumped on it,” Rockwood said. “When you have a chance to play Penn State, you go. This will be our third time out there. I don’t necessarily really expect a return. But they are going to be one of the best teams in the country.”
BYU’s entire defense returns, led by senior goalkeeper Hannah Clark and senior defender Taylor Campbell Isom, the 2016 WCC Defender of the Year who was named Tuesday to the watch list for the Hermann Trophy, college soccer’s version of the Heisman Trophy. Alyssa Jefferson, Danika Bowman and Stephanie Ney also are back for a defense that ranked ninth in goals-against average last season.
“Our back line has always been top notch,” said Clark, a team captain. “I am just as confident in our whole team as I was last year. I am definitely super confident with all of them.”
The top returning offensive player is Nadia Gomes, the WCC Player of the Year in 2015. She’s scored 18 goals and added 19 assists in her career. Team captain Bizzy Bowen is the top returning midfielder. Rockwood said goals also will come from sophomore Elise Flake, who didn’t get a lot of time last year due to how strong the front line was in 2016.
Madie Siddoway and Madie Lyons Mathews also are key returners, and top newcomers include high school All-American Cameron Tucker and Mikayla Colohan of Davis High’s mythical national championship team.
“This group has played together more in 11-a-side scrimmages, on their own, than any group I’ve had,” Rockwood said. “I can tell how [eager] they are to get started again. We had such a great year last year, and all those returning players believe they can do even better this year.”