Let’s see how far we’ve come: The state of BYU’s NCAA sports teams

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Success in college athletics is a fleeting thing. In the NCAA’s cutthroat climate, a former conference champion can move to the bottom of the league in the course of a year, and fans’ admiration of a coach can sour while he’s polishing past trophies.

Schools build new athletic facilities, programs fire and hire coaches, and scouts scour the country in search of talent — all for the purpose of becoming successful and sustaining success. After all, millions of dollars, a university’s reputation and the ability to secure future prospects are all on the line.

Bronson Kafusi returns an interception twelve yards for a touchdown against Idaho State. Kafusi will replace Kyle Van Noy at linebacker as a junior in the Fall. Photo by Natalie Stoker
Bronson Kafusi returns an interception twelve yards for a touchdown against Idaho State. Kafusi will replace Kyle Van Noy at linebacker as a junior in the Fall. Photo by Natalie Stoker

BYU’s teams ebb and flow through their seasons — all searching for success in the present and for the seasons to come. The 2013–14 year saw the emergence of some programs and the decline of others.

Here is a look back at BYU’s eight most attended NCAA sports and some context to help understand where each program stands:

Football

Conference independence gave the Cougars an opportunity to gauge themselves against a few high-caliber teams in 2013–14. A surprise torching of Texas in September and an apparently easy win at Utah State displayed the team’s potential. A confusing loss against Virginia and a heart-wrenching rivalry defeat versus Utah bewildered fans. Hard-fought losses against heavyweights Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Washington seemed to say BYU didn’t quite belong with the elite of college football.

Having finished in the nation’s top 25 each year from 2006 to 2009, the Cougars are seeking to reestablish themselves as a national power. The program’s immediate future depends on Taysom Hill’s maturation, transfers’ (receivers Jordan Leslie and Nick Kurtz, defensive back Harvey Jackson) contributions and Bronson Kafusi’s ability to fill the gaping hole left by All-American linebacker Kyle Van Noy.

2014–15 will be a crucial year for BYU football, as it could either indicate a continual decline for the program or perhaps a return to prominence.

One telling quote: “This class might be our strongest in terms of ability and impact,” said head coach Bronco Mendenhall, of the team’s 2014 recruiting class.

Women’s soccer

In a matter of just a couple of years, BYU’s women’s soccer team has become one of the elite teams in the country. The Cougars won the WCC season crown and NCAA tournament games in 2012 and 2013, under the tutelage of head coach Jennifer Rockwood.

Ashley Hatch seeks separation from an Oklahoma defender as she passes to the center of the field. Hatch will carry the women's soccer team as a sophomore in the Fall. Photo by Sarah Hill
Ashley Hatch seeks separation from an Oklahoma defender as she passes to the center of the field. Hatch will carry the women’s soccer team as a sophomore in the Fall. Photo by Sarah Hill

Maintaining success will be a tall order. The Cougars bid farewell to prolific scorers Cloee Colohan, Colette Jepson Smith and Niki Fernandes, as well as goalie Erica Owens, in 2013. They will rely on super sophomore Ashley Hatch to lead the team into the NCAA Tournament again in 2014.

One telling quote: “I think we exceeded expectations this year,” said head coach Jennifer Rockwood, whose team won at least one game in the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row. “Especially after what we accomplished last year. I’m really proud of them.”

Men’s basketball

An unceremonious exit from the NCAA tournament (an 87-68 loss to Oregon) may have caused some fans to forget that BYU accomplished some new things in the WCC in 2013–14. The Cougars finished the regular season with a 3-1 record against conference foes St. Mary’s and Gonzaga.

Already deep at both guard positions, the Cougars will hardly feel the absence of Matt Carlino. Replacing center Eric Mika (who is on a mission in Italy) will be the toughest challenge for BYU. Sophomore Luke Worthington, redshirt freshman Isaac Neilson and senior Nate Austin will play crucial roles to fill the void. The tandem of Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth will be fun to watch as Haws climbs to the top of the BYU all-time scoring list.

One telling quote: “I liked our ability to fight through some real adversity,” said head coach Dave Rose, on the Cougars loss to Oregon in the NCAA tournament without injured sophomore Kyle Collinsworth.

Women’s basketball

Jennifer Hamson’s breakout senior year guided the Cougars on a Cinderella run into the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament in 2013–14. It wasn’t just Hamson who broke through — a team that is typically strong in conference play was able to puncture its way into the national picture by upsetting North Carolina State and Nebraska in the tournament.

Lexi Eaton drives past a Colorado Mesa defender on her way to the hoop. Eaton will return to the hardcourt as a junior in the Winter. Photo by Sarah Hill
Lexi Eaton drives past a Colorado Mesa defender on her way to the hoop. Eaton will return to the hardcourt as a junior in the Winter. Photo by Sarah Hill

The Cougars will miss Hamson and sharp-shooter Kim Beeston. However, junior Lexi Eaton won’t disappoint in 2014–15. After coming off an ACL tear, Eaton’s play improved throughout her sophomore season, and she gave just a small sample of her explosiveness on the court. In addition to Eaton, the Cougars return Morgan Bailey for her senior year. Bailey averaged 10.7 points per game in 2013–14.

One telling quote: “I know my team’s been waiting for this for a long time,” said head coach Jeff Judkins, of his team’s advancement to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.

Men’s volleyball

As the Cougars charged toward an 18-3 record from January to the end of March, BYU seemed poised to send senior Taylor Sander away with an NCAA title. Unfortunately for BYU and Sander, the team came out on the losing end of an epic NCAA semifinal against Stanford.

It’s quite possible that the men’s volleyball program is in better shape than any other sports program at BYU. Skilled players flock to BYU’s roster faster than they move out of the program. In 2014–15, it will be senior Josue Rivera, along with several other returning starters, leading the Cougars as they attempt to prove that the storied program is as good as ever.

One telling quote: “We’re clearly disappointed with the result, but we did everything we could,” said head coach Chris McGown, on the team’s loss in the NCAA semifinal against Stanford.

Women’s volleyball

Historically, the women’s volleyball team has lived in the shadow of its men’s counterpart. But after four seasons of finishing unranked from 2008 to 2011, the Cougars have finished in the top 15 in consecutive seasons.

With former All-American players Jennifer Hamson — who redshirted 2013–14 to focus on basketball — and Alexa Gray, BYU is primed to go deep into the NCAA Tournament and garner a top-five ranking for the first time since 1998.

One telling quote: “These kids are hurting, but I know that they’ll respond and be a little stronger from that,” said head coach Shawn Olmstead, on the team’s loss in the regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament against Stanford.

Baseball

The toughness of playing in a conference full of California baseball teams got to the Cougars in 2014, as the team struggled to a 12-15 WCC record. Second-year head coach Mike Littlewood didn’t see the success he saw his first year, when the team finished 15-8 in the WCC.

With plenty of rebuilding to do, the Cougars said goodbye to top hitter Brock Whitney and ace pitcher Desmond Poulsen. The Cougars’ level of baseball success has greatly fluctuated throughout their history and even recently, and if they want to bounce back in 2015, they’ve got a tough row to hoe.

One telling quote: “I can’t say enough about this series and how we finished the year,” head coach Mike Littlewood said of the team’s sweep of Portland in its final three games. “They showed tremendous character.”

Softball

This is how good the BYU softball team could be over the next couple years: the team’s 2014 leaders in wins (McKenna Bull), batting average (Sydney Broderick) and on-base percentage (McKenzie St. Clair) were all freshmen. Outfielder Gordy Bravo, who was a first team All-American as a freshman, was a sophomore.

After a short trip to the NCAA regionals in 2014, the Cougars have firepower for years to come. They’ve made it to the NCAA regionals ten years in a row but have only advanced to the super regionals once (2010).

One telling quote: “Our future is bright,” said head coach Gordon Eakin after his team was eliminated from the NCAA regionals. “We talked with those returning about not liking this feeling and using it as motivation in the offseason.”

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