(Photo by BYU Photo/Jaren Wilkey)
In BYU head coach Jennifer Rockwood's own words the women's soccer program has grown, changed and developed from a very young soccer program into a nationally competitive one in her 19 years as the only head coach the program has known.
Rockwood jumped at the opportunity to coach the newly sanctioned BYU women's soccer team in 1995. She had spent several years coaching the university's club women's soccer team and to this day feels lucky as to how things have turned out.
"As just a club coach not having any real division I experience I was so very fortunate to kind of be in the right place at the right time," Rockwood said.
Nineteen years later, Rockwood won her 300th game 2-0 over the University of San Francisco. At the start of the program, her eyes weren't on 300 and they aren't on 400 now either. They rest firmly on each passing year and the improvement the team can show.
"We try each year to be better than we have been in the past," Rockwood said. "Bringing in the right players who can help us be successful, scheduling teams that can challenge us, to try and get better and learn from the past.
"We want to be the best team we can be."
After going 11-8-1 in 1995, Rockwood's team improved to 22-1 and was ranked nationally, but didn't receive a berth in the NCAA tournament despite winning the Western Athletic Conference tournament. The Cougars followed with seasons of 19, 20 and 21 wins to close out the millennium. From 1997 through 2003, BYU earned a spot in the NCAA tournament every year and beat Stanford twice, UCLA, Cal, Kansas, Colorado, Idaho State and Villanova in the postseason.
In Rockwood's first nine seasons, she won at least 10 games each year. A run she has equaled this season, having won double digit games every season since 2005.
Even with the success, Rockwood saw what could be and went for it.
"Ten or 12 years or so ago, we really decided that if we wanted to see how good we could become, we had to go out there and play top competition," Rockwood said. "If you lose, you learn a lot or if you win, it's going to build your program and confidence in your players."
The Cougars started off the 2002 season playing defending national champion and No. 2-ranked Portland. BYU won 2-0 at South Field. The quality wins over tough competition have kept coming. The Cougars have brought national power after national power to South Field and have traveled to face them as well. BYU has knocked off top 10 teams each of the past two years, defeating Penn State at home in 2012 and upsetting Portland on the road this year.
Bringing those games to Provo, Utah, has also meant putting on a show on South Field.
"We take great pride in South Field and how we've kind of built that over the last 20 years," Rockwood said. "I think we have a good relationship with the community and the student body, but ultimately you have to bring in good teams, play great soccer and win games to get that support.
"We feel that it's a huge part of our role as a team and a program to entice people to come watch us play and support us."
Getting tough competition to Provo was made easier when the Cougars moved into the West Coast Conference to start the 2011 season. At the end of her second season in the conference, Rockwood had won a championship in the third league she'd coached in. Perennial powers Santa Clara, Portland and Pepperdine make the WCC a tough proposition year in and year out, but they also make the Cougars a better team come the postseason.
"You get to the tournament as kind of a culmination of everything you've done for about nine months before that," Rockwood said. "Ultimately, your goal is to do your best to win or be in the position to win the conference championship and then get yourself prepared for the toughest competition you'll face which is in the NCAAs."
The almost perfect example was 2012. The Cougars defeated four ranked teams including No. 6 Penn State and No. 11 Long Beach State and ended the regular season on an 18-game unbeaten streak. After defeating No. 22 Pepperdine to close out the WCC season, BYU was ranked No. 2 in the following week's poll. It's the highest BYU has ever been ranked.
The Cougars added wins over Utah State, Auburn and Marquette in the NCAA tournament to advance to the Elite 8 for the second time in program history.
"Last year was a special year for us," Rockwood said. "A lot of big wins led to us playing in the Elite 8 against North Carolina on our home field in front of a full house. That's certainly something I won't forget. It culminated a lot of great players and teams over the years to get to that point"
Rockwood's program is an interesting mix of people who have been there from the beginning and those who have come along the way.
"It's important for coaches to surround themselves with great people," Rockwood said. "I've been blessed with great people to help me do my job. I have a staff that I couldn't do my job without. Then it all goes to the players. We've had some amazing young women come through the program who have represented the university at the highest level, both on and off the field, and I feel proud to be a part of BYU women's soccer."
Her 300th victory put Rockwood in select company, both at BYU and in NCAA women's soccer. Only six other coaches at BYU have won 300 games in their careers and only five other NCAA coaches have won 300 games all at the same institution. While 300 wins and trips deep into the NCAA tournament are milestones along the way, the program Rockwood has built and the effects it has on NCAA women's soccer, players, alumni and fans is apparent to those who follow along.
"Jennifer's 300th win at BYU is a big deal," BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said. "It is a tribute to her consistency and staying power in a profession where most coaches can't imagine this type of longevity. The wins are one thing, but her roster of beautiful, intelligent, confident, successful and very special women alums are the jewels on her crown. The Rockwood Era will always be remembered at BYU."
LSU head coach Brian Lee before facing the Cougars earlier this season said, "Jennifer Rockwood has done a tremendous job of building up their program. They're one of the true powers in the college game right now and deserve that recognition with their performance in recent years."
While Rockwood has been successful, every year brings with it new challenges and new opportunities.
"As a coach every year it's different," Rockwood said. "It's a different group. It's a different set of circumstances. Every year you learn. I've certainly learned a lot over the years and I continue to learn each and every year."