BYU Women’s Soccer Preview: Cougars are loaded for Big 12 debut | News, Sports, Jobs

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BYU’s Ellie Walbruch (left) chases down teammate Ellie Fryer after Fryer scored a goal against Idaho State in a women’s soccer exhibition match at South Field on Saturday, August 12, 2023.

Courtesy BYU Photo

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The BYU women’s soccer team celebrates a 7-0 exhibition victory against Idaho State at South Field on Saturday, August 12, 2023.

Courtesy BYU Photo

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BYU’s Laveni Vaka approaches the ball during a women’s soccer exhibition match against Idaho State at South Field on Saturday, August 12, 2023.

Courtesy BYU Photo

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BYU’s Brecken Mozingo takes a shot during a women’s college soccer match against Idaho State at South Field on Saturday, August 12, 2023.

Courtesy BYU Photo


How much respect do Big 12 women’s soccer coaches have for new member BYU?

They voted the Cougars the preseason favorite.

OK, it was only by one point over TCU (156 to 155) but BYU did receive six of the 14 first-place votes. In addition, seniors Brecken Mozingo, Jamie Shepherd and Laveni Vaka were all named to the preseason all-conference team.

The Cougars reputation precedes them.

BYU has been a nearly automatic qualifier for the NCAA Tournament under Jennifer Rockwood, who is beginning her 29th season as the only coach the Cougars have know since moving from a club program to NCAA competition in 1995. Rockwood, who was also the club coach at the time of the move to the NCAA, has posted a 435-126-54 record (.751) in her distinguished career. BYU advanced to the NCAA Finals in 2021 and have made seven Sweet 16’s.

The Cougars are rookies in the Big 12 but the expectations are obviously high in 2023.

“I think we’re a really dynamic team and we’re dangerous from many different spots on the field,” Shepherd said. “That’s what makes us so different is we have a lot of goal scores and we want to keep building on our identity each and every game.”

Where were we?

BYU finished last season with a 11-3-7 overall record, which included a second-place finish in the West Coast Conference at 6-0-3. The Cougars earned their 23rd NCAA Tournament appearance and made the most of it. BYU hosted a first round game and defeated Utah Valley 3-0, then upset Stanford in a shootout to advance to the Sweet 16. The Cougars lost a 3-2 decision to North Carolina, which advanced to the NCAA final before losing to UCLA 3-2 in double overtime.

Welcome back

The Cougars return all of it starters in 2023 and have fortified the roster with more talent for added depth. Senior Brecken Mozingo led BYU with 12 goals and 10 assists last season. Olivia Wade-Katoa added nine goals and five assists and sophomore Allie Fryer, a budding superstar, had nine goals as a freshman. Then there’s senior Bella Folino, who has scored 34 career goals and Shepherd, who added seven goals and five assists last season. Rachel McCarthy, who had 16 career goals, is one of the team’s fastest players. Kendell Peterson, Ellie Boren, Zoe Jacobs, Olivia Smith-Griffitts and Tara Warner all all veterans who add to the depth of the roster.

“We were the top team in the country last year creating goalscoring opportunities,” Rockwood said. “We just didn’t finish as many as we would have liked. So that’s kind of our goal this year is to execute a little bit more and create even more opportunities in our attack.”

Vaka is a physical player and the quarterback of the defense. Also on the back line is 5-foot-11 sophomore Izzy Stratton, who made several all-freshman lists last season. In goal, Savanna Mason returns after 21 starts last season, allowing just 23 goals and logging 57 saves.

“They are really hungry to be better and the commitment that they have had over the summer in their training and fitness has been really impressive,” Rockwood said. “We’ve seen it since we started. It’s been an amazing preseason camp so far. We have a lot of experience and a lot of great leaders who really want to go for it this year.”

New faces

A couple of key addition add to BYU depth in 2023. Ellie Walbruch, who played last season for national champion UCLA and was one of the top-rated junior players in the country as a high schooler, has a powerful leg and a great feel for the game. Former Washington State goalkeeper Lynette Hernaez will help the Cougars depth at that position. Additionally, Rockwood and her staff have recruited an outstanding freshman class to push the veterans, led by Ellie Ford and Tylee Pratt.

Being tested

The Cougars open the season on Thursday at South Field against Atlantic 10 champion Saint Louis, which posted a 20-2 record last season and earned an NCAA Tournament bid. Defending NCAA champ UCLA comes to Provo on August 31. BYU also plays a challenging in-state schedule against Utah Valley, Utah and Utah State then opens Big 12 play at home against TCU on September 14.

“We love having a challenging preseason,” Wade-Katoa said. “I feel like we’ve always been known to have a very challenging preseason, just because it does prepare you for the big games that you’re going to face down the road. We’re super excited. We know that we have a lot of difficult challenging games ahead of us. But I think we’re ready to take those things head on to really see what we can do this year.”

The WCC is a very good women’s soccer league and Rockwood believes that experience has prepared her program to step up to the Big 12.

“In the Big 12, I believe we’re going to see more athleticism,” she said. “The WCC, it’s such a great conference for soccer. The WCC teams played possession soccer. I think we might see some more direct play from some teams in the Big 12, but obviously it will be a huge challenge.

“To be honest, our focus is just moving forward. I haven’t really spent much time watching any of the Big 12 teams yet. We’ll get there. But we’ve got a lot of games to play before then.”

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