Former BYU players ecstatic that women’s soccer team made first-ever College Cup, say Cougars will beat Santa Clara

The Cougars play Santa Clara on Friday after beating South Carolina in the Elite 8 last week.

(Rick Egan | Tribune File Photo) Taylor Campbell Isom (2) Stephanie Ringwood Ney, (24) midfielder Bizzy Bowen (10), celebrate Isom's goal during a 2016 match. Cougar alums are celebrating again as BYU prepares to play in the College Cup, the sport's final four, for the first time.

The 2016 BYU Cougars came agonizingly close to advancing to the NCAA College Cup — the Final Four of college women’s soccer. That team was coached by Jennifer Rockwood and featured names like Ashley Hatch, Michele Vasconcelos, Bizzy Phillips and Stephanie Ney.

That year, the Cougars lost in the Elite 8 to the South Carolina Gamecocks in a 1-0 result. Vasconcelos and Hatch graduated that year, Phillips and Ney the next.

So when some former players watched BYU roll through South Carolina last Saturday to advance to the College Cup for the first time in program history, they couldn’t but feel like they exorcised some demons.

“For me, that was so sweet to see them beat them,” Vasconcelos said. “And not only to beat them, but to crush them. That was so exciting for me.”

Vasconcelos, Phillips and Ney are three players who have stayed in contact since leaving BYU and regularly chit-chat about how the Cougars are doing.

And all three are buzzing about the Cougars, Rockwood and what is in store for the team as they get ready to play the Santa Clara Broncos on Friday in Santa Clara, Calif.

BYU at Santa Clara

Friday, 7:30 p.m.

Stevens Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.

Watch • ESPNU

Listen • BYU Radio SiriusXM 143/BYU Radio app/BYU Radio 107.9 FM

“I just think it’s so great for BYU to finally make it into the College Cup because we’ve always been good enough and so close,” Ney said. “We just often either would get a bad bid in the tournament or just unfortunate circumstances. So it was just amazing to finally see us break through and make a bigger name for ourselves.”

BYU and Santa Clara have played three times in 2021 because the 2020 season was pushed back to earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cougars have a 1-2-0 record in those games against the Broncos, who won the national championship in May.

Rockwood and Santa Clara coach Jerry Smith have both been at helm of their teams for a combined 61 years. Their teams have played against each other countless times.

Smith’s praise for Rockwood and her team was effusive this week.

“It’s hard to be consistently good, and they are consistently good,” Smith said. “And as many great teams as they’ve had — and we’ve had some great battles with BYU over the years — this is probably their best team.”

Senior Mikayla Colohan leads the Cougars with 18 goals this season, while senior Cameron Tucker is close behind with 16. Colohan is tied for second in the country in goals and ranks fourth in assists with 15.

The Cougars lead the NCAA in scoring offense with an average of 3.5 goals per game.

Rockwood said the team’s defense has greatly improved from last season to this season due to the development of a new back line and goalkeeper. It’s that development that has given the Cougars the opportunity to score as much as they have.

“Throughout last season and then heading into this season, we made tremendous progress in our defensive backfield,” Rockwood said. “And that’s allowed us to play a lot more of a possession-oriented game, which also has then allowed us to attack a lot more.”

For Rockwood, who is in her 27th season coaching the Cougars, advancing to the College Cup means a lot to her. She called it “a huge milestone” and thought back to a few instances where the team got close but couldn’t get over the hump — like 2016. And in recent years, she had come to terms with the idea that perhaps one of her teams would never make it past the Elite 8.

But the desire to play for a national championship has kept her going all these years. She said she has coached much longer than she originally anticipated because of that.

“I’ve been saying ‘maybe one or two more years’ for probably about 15 to 18 years,” Rockwood said.

Her former players praised Rockwood for how much she cares about her teams, and her attacking style of soccer.

“In my opinion, her strength is being the head leader and always trying to build you up as an individual and then as a team,” Phillips told The Tribune.

Vasconcelos, Phillips and Ney will certainly be watching their Cougars on Friday — Vasconcelos with her husband and daughter from Spain — where she is currently on loan from the Kansas City Current — and Phillips and Ney from their homes with their parents, siblings and children.

Phillips and Ney also have connections with several players on the current BYU roster. Tucker, Makaylie Moore, Savanna Empey-Mason and Cassidy Smith were all freshmen in 2017, which was Phillips’ and Ney’s senior year.

And there seems to be no doubt in anyone’s mind that BYU will advance and make history yet again.

“BYU is the better team this year,” Phillips said.