Senior Aleisha Rose returns for her final season with the Cougars who are looking for their fifth MWC title. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
After capturing their fourth consecutive Mountain West Conference title last season, the Cougars are set once again to bring home the hardware as they set out to claim an unprecedented sixth conference title in nine years, and remain the only team to win the MWC title in the history of the conference.
Entering the 2003 season the Cougars are once again a team full of young athletes. Nine freshman and nine sophomores help make up this season's roster. Of those athletes returning nine are starters from last year's team, which should help as the team looks to mature and improve upon last season's successful run.
The maturing process of the team is in the hands of ninth year head coach Jennifer Rockwood, a coach who has taken young teams and turned them into top-25 programs several times in her career. Over the course of her career Rockwood has established herself as one of the top coaches in the country with an overall winning record of 142-39-3 (0.78), a mark that has her ranked sixth in winning percentage among all NCAA Division I coaches. Over her career Rockwood has guided BYU to six consecutive NCAA appearances, and seven top-25 finishes in the program's eight-year history, including last year's No. 23 NSCAA finish.
After losing only one starter last season, Jeni Viernes who was the team's top scorer, a First Team All-Region selection, MWC Player of the Year, and the MWC Tournament MVP, the Cougars will have seven seniors on this year's team. That group of players brings with them experience and a love for the game that has helped the Cougars to become a nationally respected program.
"I am excited for our seniors, we have an outstanding class that has helped continue the winning tradition of our program. I would love to see them have another successful year," said Rockwood.
One of those players returning to the Cougar team for her senior season is three time All-American Aleisha Rose, who will be looked to as a source of experience and leadership on this year's team. After leading the Cougars in assists last season, Rose will once again be playing a central role for BYU at the midfielder position. With her suffocating defense, skillful ball handling and deadly accuracy on offense, Rose is one of the best players in the college game.
Returning starters Lydia Ojuka and Jennifer Fielding, along with sophomore Brooke Bowman, will help fuel the offensive attack of the Cougars. Bowman, the 2002 MWC Freshman of the Year and the team's second leading scorer last season, adds even more firepower to the already intimidating front line. "Brooke is very dominant in the air and has a great outside shot," said Rockwood. "She knows how to score goals."
The four returnees combined for a total of 26 goals, 25 assists, and 180 shots last season. Those numbers are expected to increase with the help of junior Krissa Campbell and sophomore Jamie Rendich adding additional firepower on offense.
"We've always been a team that likes to attack, I think that we have several players who are capable of stepping up and helping the team out offensively," said Rockwood.
On defense, the Cougars are known for their stingy and aggressive play. The team won't be giving up any easy goals to opponents with returning defenders, Aleisha Rose and Britney Holman returning for their final seasons, and sophomore Charlene Lui, disrupting the advances of the Cougar opponents.
"Last year Charlene Lui was able to step in as a freshmen and earn a starting spot on defense," said Rockwood. "She had an outstanding season and we will be looking for her and Aleisha to be solid down the middle for us."
Adding strength to the already impressive Cougar team is another strong incoming classes of freshman. "This group equally compares to any group that we have brought into the program including last year's group of freshman," said Rockwood. "That group last year did an outstanding job right from the start, and I think this group has the same potential for several of them to come in and become big contributors from the beginning."
Highlighted by defenders Nicole Jensen, and Claire Thomas, the 2003 freshman class is packed with decorated athletes. Thomas, from Southern California, comes from one of the top club teams in the country, and Jensen, a Denver, Colo. native, played for XXX, and was named All-State and All-Conference in Colorado for 2002. "I think both Nicole and Claire can help make an immediate impact on defense for us," said Rockwood.
In goal, the Cougars have made progress with returning starters junior Mandy Gott and sophomore Ashley Smith, who split the time in goal last season. "Our keepers have significantly improved over the past year and we will be looking for them to help solidify our defense," said Rockwood. "We will need them to step up this fall and be dominate forces in their box."
The entire Cougar team hopes to make an impact in the national rankings with 14 of the team's 20 regular season games being played at home at South Stadium. The regular season schedule boasts seven teams that qualified for the 2002 NCAA Tournament. This year's schedule is set to be one of the most competitive seasons the Cougars have ever had.
On the road the Cougars face a tough line-up that includes matchups with Kentucky, Iowa, Gonzaga, Hawai'i, and conference rivals UNLV and San Diego State.
Highlighting this season's home schedule will be three teams that finished in the 2002 NSCAA top-25: No. 11 Michigan, No. 10 Tennessee, and No. 22 USC. Also included in the home schedule is the 1998 NCAA Championship team, Florida, as well as in-state rivals Southern Utah, Weber State, and Utah.
With an exciting and challenging schedule to be played in the 2003 season, the return of some of the best players BYU has had, and a roster full of young athletes, this season is expected to be another year full of excitement and success for the Cougars.