When Brigham Young University decided to turn its women’s soccer club team into an official NCAA participant, it had decisions to make. Primary among them was coming up with someone to build the new program.
The year was 1995, and there were not a ton of places to go at the time to find a coach who would combine the high standards of a BYU coach with the capability to lead an NCAA Division I soccer team. Fortunately, the athletic department didn’t have to go far to find a candidate who fit its criteria, though even she wasn’t sure how long the coaching job would last.
Now, more than 18 years and 300 wins later, there is mutual agreement that Jennifer Rockwood was the perfect choice for the Cougars.
Coach Rockwood played club soccer at BYU for four years, and after her graduation, she took over as the coach of that club team, a position she held for six years.
“When they decided to add the sport in 1995, I just applied for it,” Rockwood said. “I figured I don’t have any Division I experience, but I’ve been here at BYU. Maybe they’ll give me a shot, and if not, I’ll just keep teaching.”
Everything was new with BYU and NCAA women’s soccer at the time, and that played to Rockwood’s advantage.
“They gave me a shot,” Rockwood added. “I figure I was young, I was cheap and not a lot of people in this area knew a lot about soccer at that time. I never anticipated being a college coach at all. I think I was in the right place at the right time, working with the club team. I was a little bit overwhelmed, but I have taken it a year at a time and then two or three years at a time.”
This strategy has carried Rockwood to great heights, and the result is one of the nation’s premier soccer programs, a destination location for top recruits and a crowd favorite around Utah Valley.
The 2013 edition of the BYU women’s soccer team, Rockwood’s 19th squad, was in the San Francisco Bay Area Oct. 10 for a West Coast Conference battle with the University of San Francisco. The team had been talking for two or three weeks about a milestone victory that was coming for its head coach.
As of Sept. 12, Rockwood was three wins shy of career victory No. 300 as the Cougar coach, but over the five matches that followed, BYU went through its roughest patch of the season, losing three, while winning just one and playing to a draw. A win over Baylor in Waco set things up for that October night in the city by the Bay.
First half goals by Niki Fernandes and Cloee Colohan took away the pressure and with goalkeeper Erica Owens and the BYU defense recording a shutout, the Cougars earned the victory.
“We were on the road in San Francisco, and it was a game that we played really well,” Rockwood said. “It was kind of a breakthrough game for us as we had a couple of weeks of struggles. It just felt really good. It was fun that our administrators, Brian Santiago and Tom (Holmoe) were there supporting us. After the game, they presented the game ball to me. It just means a lot.”
In a time when the phrase “coaching burnout” is often more the norm than the exception, the only women’s soccer coach BYU has ever known in the NCAA era is as committed as ever to her team.
“To reach 300 wins is an amazing milestone in the world of collegiate soccer, but to do it at one institution is even more incredible,” said BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe. “It’s a tribute to Coach Rockwood’s consistency and staying power in a profession where most coaches can’t imagine this type of longevity.”
Those who know Coach Rockwood tend to credit that staying power to something other than the game of soccer.
“If it weren’t for the young ladies she’s dealing with, Jen wouldn’t be there this long, I don’t think,” said Natalyn Lewis, a former BYU player (1996-2000) and current Timpanogos High girls soccer coach. “This isn’t about the game of soccer for her. It’s about working with these girls. If it weren’t for that constant ebb and flow and these young ladies, I don’t think she’d still be doing it. Jen is not eating, drinking and sleeping soccer, she’s eating, drinking and sleeping these young ladies and being a part of their lives and being a part of Brigham Young University, and being a part of a program that stands for something and continues to improve. I think that’s the most important to her.”
Rockwood draws energy from her players, from the game and from the ongoing success that has fueled a high level of excitement around this soccer program, both on campus and throughout the community. That energy and the hard work that comes with it has delivered results.
“She has a great deal of passion for the game, BYU and our student-athletes,” Holmoe said. “The consistency and success of the program has made it one of the more popular sports for fans to support at BYU.”
Lewis sees the same thing as a close observer of Rockwood’s work.
“There’s definitely something going on there with her as a coach and with the tradition of the program that she has put in place over the years,” Lewis said. “You’re proud to be an alumna of that program, you’re proud to be a part of what goes on there. Every year it just seems to get better and better.
“That’s what that 300 wins says — she’s able to do something not once, not twice, but 300 times, which means it’s not an accident and it’s not something that’s going to go away tomorrow either. She’s established a program now, and now it’s a matter of that program continuing to grow and build. I won’t be surprised the day that BYU gets to the Final Four.
That possibility doesn’t seem so far-fetched any more. Coach Rockwood can look back at a string of wins of all shapes and sizes on the road to No. 300, but there have certainly been plenty of really big ones as well.
“There’s been a lot of great games, a lot of championships that we’ve been able to be in,” Rockwood said. “I remember the PK win at Villanova to advance us to our first Elite 8 in 2003. Certainly last year was just a monumental year for all of us. A lot of those games were big, especially that PK (win over Marquette in the Sweet 16). And then, this last weekend, beating Portland, ranked fifth in the country, at their place, in front of 5,000 people. So, there have been a lot of great memories over the years.”
And then there was that huge November night last season when the Cougars hosted national women’s soccer power North Carolina in an Elite 8 game that went to two overtimes. The result was not what Rockwood and her team had hoped for, but it was another big moment in a list of accomplishments that keeps growing, and it showed that the Final Four is in reach.
“I remember when we saw the brackets and I remember telling the girls as the brackets came out — ‘How amazing would that be to be able to play North Carolina in the Elite 8 on our home field?’ And it came to be,” Rockwood said. “It’s exciting to play a team like that, which is such a dynasty, and has done so much for college women’s soccer. The fan support … to have people standing in line to come to a women’s soccer game and to have the stadium full when we came out to warm up, you just don’t see that very often in college soccer. It was an amazing experience, one that we hope to duplicate here again.”
Rockwood continues to influence her players today. She is still all about teaching and building the young ladies who come into her program.
“She is the complete package as a coach,” said senior goalkeeper Erica Owens. “She has a ton of experience, she knows all about the game of soccer and she has passion for the game. She’s really excited. We can tell that she loves to be here and to be successful. She’s also a fantastic person. I don’t think you can get all three of those qualities with most of the coaches you see, especially at this level. It’s rare to find a coach like Jen who’s awesome in all three areas.”
The players change, but the approach to coaching and the style of play are a constant at BYU.
“She still loves the clean, beautiful game of soccer — lots of possession, connect the passes,” Lewis said. “She loves her very fast players in the back and the aggressive speed up top, with dominant control in the midfield. That seems to be her postmark on the game. It seems to be that way today, and it was that way when we played.”
And how does Rockwood expect this year’s team to follow up on all of the excitement last year’s group generated? With eight seniors from that team having moved on, there certainly have been questions.
“We got off to a great start then lost a little momentum, but I think we’ve picked it back up and we’ve gotten a little better every game since we played Baylor,” Rockwood said. “I really think that we’ve set ourselves up nice for the NCAA Tournament. Potentially, if we win out we could even be seeded and we could pick up a few home games. If we’re playing at our best, anything can happen. I really feel good about this group.”
Just as she’s felt good about the groups that came before. In her 19th year, it appears that the run of success is far from over.
“With Jen everything was always very organized, practice was organized, games were organized, trips were organized and she always did things to the highest level of professionalism,” Lewis said. “We always felt we are inside of and working with a premier program. I think that has helped BYU over the years just continue to improve and excel. When the expectation is on the table of a premier-level program, and when you feel like you’re a part of that, you tend to rise to the occasion a bit more.”
The BYU women’s soccer team hosts Weber State for the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday, Nov. 15.