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BYU soccer was never going to continue where it left off, but the pandemic allowed the Cougars to have a better starting point this season

The 12th-seeded Cougars earned a first-round bye and will make their return to the NCAA Tournament on May 1.

(Jaren Wilkey | BYU) Jennifer Rockwood is the coach of BYU women's soccer team. She is in her 16th season, building a nationally ranked program.

Ideally, the BYU women’s soccer team would have liked to pick up right where it left off — at the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals. But even if the pandemic wouldn’t have thrown a wrench into things, sending student-athletes home from campus and postponing the season, it would have still been a tall task.

The Cougars returned only four starters from their 2019 squad. Yet, they did find themselves back in the tourney.

So, how did they do that? Well, the pandemic may have played a major role in BYU’s return to the NCAA Tournament — for the third consecutive time.

The 12th-seeded Cougars will make their debut in the second round, on Saturday, against the winner of the first-round game between Virginia and SIUE.

Usually, coach Jennifer Rockwood said she has a different team every semester. She gets her new players in the summer to get ready for the fall and after the season she loses her seniors and has a smaller team during spring practices and workouts. Then the cycle repeats itself.

The constant changes can hinder chemistry and camaraderie within the team, and lead the Cougars to have a different personality.

But not this time around.

Because the pandemic pushed back the season to the spring, Rockwood has had her team together for almost a full year.

“I think that’s a great advantage that we have going into the tournament, and also the fact that we’ve been able to play more games than most teams this spring,” Rockwood said. “I think that’s a pretty big advantage, having the opportunity to travel more than most teams throughout this process and being used to some different protocols and restrictions.”

While the extended offseason may have helped, those four returning starters also played a large role — particularly Mikayla Colohan and Cameron Tucker.

The Cougars are averaging 3.13 goals per game; Colohan and Tucker have scored 19 of BYU’s 47 goals this year and are two of four Cougars who have score eight or more goals this season. The two seniors have helped BYU become the third-best scoring offense in the country.

On Friday, Colohan was named the West Coast Conference Offensive Player of the Year, for a second consecutive season. In total, seven Cougars received WCC honors.

The Cougars also rank first in total goals; second in total points and points per game; and fifth in total assists.

However, a pleasant surprise within the squad this year has been Rachel McCarthy. In the 14 games she’s played in, she’s only started once, but has contributed nine goals and seven assists.

“She’s phenomenal,” Rockwood said of McCarthy. “We’ve been having her coming off the bench just because she adds such a great dimension coming off the bench, even though she could easily be starting.”

Sophomore Bella Folino is the fourth Cougar that rounds out the commanding BYU attack. Folino sat out the 2019 season with a stress fracture, but has returned just as strong as her freshman season.

Rockwood said, when a team has four players that score and get as many assists and her group of four players have, they’ll have great results.

Going into the season, though, Rockwood knew the team’s defense was going to look drastically different than before because of the drastic roster change. Throughout the season, the back line saw multiple changes due to injuries. But it has helped the Cougars improve regardless

“I think we’ve learned a lot,” Rockwood said. “We’ve challenged ourselves with some out of conference games that have been very competitive, and really feel like the team’s come together right at the perfect time. I felt like, against Portland in our last game, we played very well on both sides and able to build that momentum and confidence going into the tournament.”

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