Is BYU ready to compete in the Big 12? These Cougars expect to win it all

BYU’s No. 1 ranked women’s soccer team starts conference play against TCU on Thursday.

The BYU women’s soccer team has been preparing for this moment for years.

The Cougars are consistently in the national conversation as one of the best teams in the NCAA. They’ve qualified for the postseason tournament 23 of the last 28 years, and were the championship runners-up in 2021.

And after taking down top-ranked UCLA and rival Utah in recent days, the Cougars are ranked No. 1 in the country.

The teams coach Jennifer Rockwood chooses as non-conference opponents has helped prepare BYU for this.

“I think that Jen, along with the rest of our coaching staff, have really prepared us by just putting us in those environments where we have to learn and grow and where we play really high-level teams,” junior goalkeeper Savanna Mason said. “When we see ourselves match up and do well, I think that that is definitely that preparation and that [shows], OK, yeah, we’re ready for the next step. We’re ready to be up there.”

Now the stage is set for BYU’s first conference game in the Big 12 era against TCU, a team that won the 2021 conference title. The two teams kick off Thursday at 7 p.m. at South Field.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Head coach Jennifer Rockwood during a BYU soccer practice in Provo on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023.

But even as the Cougars prepared to face then-No. 1 UCLA a full two weeks prior to their Big 12 opener, it was difficult for some players to contain their excitement about being in a new conference.

“I’m so pumped,” Mason said. “I think me along with all my other teammates and our coaching staff, we’re excited. It’s awesome to be able to play new teams and be in another really great conference.”

BYU officially joined the Big 12 on July 1. Predictably, most of the attention went to how football and basketball — the revenue sports — would fare. But the soccer and volleyball teams started their seasons first, and are, in a way, leading the perception charge for BYU athletics as a whole — particularly as non-revenue sports.

“I think it’s a big deal,” sophomore midfielder Izzy Stratton said when asked about the importance of soccer and volleyball performing well to start the season. “I think it shows that we can play at any level, the national level, and it shows that football and basketball really isn’t all where it is.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ellie Boren during a BYU soccer practice in Provo on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023.

Rockwood isn’t all that concerned about a perceived increase in tough competition in the Big 12, which she described as being “pretty strong top to bottom, probably more depth than we had in our other conference.” Part of the reason for her confidence, she said, is all of her players from last year returned, and they added some talent on top of that.

The Cougars are now 7-0 to start the season. Sophomore Erin Bailey leads the team with five goals. Senior Kendell Petersen is tied for second in the nation with seven total assists.

Perhaps the only thing worrying Rockwood a little right now is having to play games on Mondays instead of Saturdays. BYU teams do not practice or play games on Sundays for religious reasons.

“Most teams don’t ever play a game when they don’t practice the day before,” Rockwood said. “With the Big 12 making us play on a Monday as opposed to a Saturday, I think that’s going to take some time for us as a staff to kind of figure out what the best way is to manage that and handle that. I think that’s going to be really tricky for us.”

Nevertheless, the Cougars were picked to win the Big 12 in their first year, per a preseason poll voted on by the conference’s head coaches. BYU players and coaches said they appreciated the respect, but are not putting too much stock into predictions.

“Those external things, like the polls and the rankings and the RPI, they’re all really important, don’t get me wrong,” Mason said. “But as a player, at least for me, if I can just focus on my teammates and I can focus on myself, then all those things don’t really need to matter.”