Possibly the hottest ticket in Provo in 2012 was to a women’s soccer game. And not just any game: with a no. 1 NCAA tournament seeding—the highest ever for a BYU women’s team—the Cougars were hosting their elite eight match. Their opponent: women’s soccer powerhouse University of North Carolina (UNC), which had won 20 of the 30 national championships to date.
But the UNC soccer dynasty had its eye on BYU all year.
“It started with Texas,” says Anson Dorrance, the storied coach who led UNC to all those championships. Early in the season Dorrance agreed to scout BYU for the Texas coach, one of his former Tar Heels. “We were both stunned,” he says.
BYU pummeled Texas (5–0). Before that, the Cougars had beat no. 11 Long Beach State; after, they mopped up no. 6 Penn State in front of a record crowd.
In that defeat of Penn State—somewhere between goalkeeper Erica Owens’ (’14) diving, one-handed save and
J. Michele Murphy’s (’16) stunning header goal—the Cougars seemed to be making a statement: this was their year.
“It’s just been a magical season,” says BYU coach Jennifer Rockwood (BS ’89), whose team, with nine seniors, wasn’t even ranked preseason. In their winningest season in program history, the Cougars steadily climbed to no. 2 and went undefeated in the WCC—a juggernaut conference in women’s soccer.
In the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, on home turf, BYUmarched through Utah State, Auburn, and Marquette—winning the last in a dramatic shootout.
Dorrance, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, found himself cheering the Cougars on. “I get the BYU channel,” he says. “I’ve been watching their games all season. I root for them.” Before he knew it, UNC and BYU were meeting at the end of the same bracket.
The dominant Tar Heels, which had never had to play a quarterfinal on the road, got the South Field welcome: the country’s no. 1 women’s soccer venue in total attendance, BYU’s South Field sold out the post-Thanksgiving game well in advance with a crowd nearly 5,000 strong. There were people outside with “I need tickets” signs. “Being able to play in front of those fans every game would be incredible,” says Tar Heel Kealia Ohai.
UNC struck early, but BYU answered, scoring on a penalty kick. The game remained tied 1–1 through the rest of regulation. In a game dominated by the Tar Heels, who outshot the Cougars 23–8, Rockwood was proud of her defense, anchored by 2012 first-team All-American Lindsi Lisonbee Cutshall (’13). “They were absolutely phenomenal,” says Rockwood.
Then, in the second overtime, Cutshall had a 1-on-1 breakaway with UNC’s keeper.
“We were thinking, ‘game over,’” says Dorrance. “That girl is an extraordinary player.” Cutshall juked the goalie and put the ball on frame, but Tar Heel reserve Brooke Elby heroically slid in to deflect the shot. UNC scored just a few minutes later to win. The Tar Heels would go on to win their 21st national championship.
Still, the BYU team created a following: professors were calling out players in class for recognition, says goalkeeper Owens, and the fan base bulged—in size and in vocals—like never before. And it established BYU as a force to be reckoned with, coming so close to the final four against one of the nation’s best teams.
It was an experience up-and-coming talent, like Murphy, named National Freshman of the Year by CollegeSportsMadness.com, won’t soon forget. “The young players felt what it’s like,” says Rockwood. A repeat? “We’ll take it.”
—Brittany Karford Rogers (BA ’07)