Jennifer Rockwood and the origins of the BYU women’s soccer team
Story and cover art by Alex Dotson
One penalty kick. That’s all it would take. One save, and for the first time in their history, the BYU women’s soccer team would be one shot away from a national championship.
The Cougars — led by All-American Mikayla Colohan and All-WCC First Teamer Cameron Tucker — had taken the 2021 NCAA Tournament by storm. After finishing 12-4-1 on the season with a share of the West Coast Conference crown, they beat top-seeded Virginia in the third round and previous national champion Santa Clara in the semifinal. In the College Cup Final, the Cougars met another one seed in the Florida State Seminoles. And they needed one kick to seal it.
After a back and forth match which saw the Cougars outshoot the Seminoles 9-7— including a 4-3 advantage in shots on goal— both teams remained scoreless. This classic wasn’t decided by a single goal; it would require penalty kicks instead.
BYU and Florida State traded goals back and forth, with a few occasional misses sprinkled in. After Olivia Wade found the back of the net to tie the shootout at 3-3, FSU’s Yujie Zhao stood at the line with a simple conclusion: make it and become a national champion, or miss and give the Cougars a chance.
Head coach Jennifer Rockwood, known for her focused determination on the sideline and for being emotionally defensive of her players, leaned in to anticipate the shot. On the outside, she remained expressionless, but she struggled to contain her nerves on the inside.
“Going into a PK is tough because you can’t practice those, I mean you can, but you really can’t,” Rockwood said. “Most of those girls who take them haven’t taken them since high school because our conference doesn’t have a conference championship.”
Practice or not, it didn’t matter to her or the team. A national championship was within their grasp. In 27 years as the Cougars’ head coach, Rockwood’s resume includes seven Coach of the Year awards, 13 total conference titles and 27 All-Americans. But none of these meant anything at the moment. When she became the head coach of a club-turned-NCAA-sanctioned team in 1995, nothing was ever promised. This moment, this chance, was the biggest in her coaching career. She knew it may never come again.
Entering the 1995 school year, the talk around BYU’s campus could have been split between many different things. Some may have been talking about Michael Jordan’s recent “un-retirement” and his upcoming return to the powerhouse Chicago Bulls. Others may have had their radios cranked up, listening to “Kiss from a Rose” by Seal or “Only Wanna Be With You” by Hootie and the Blowfish. There were many likely talking about the upcoming football season for the Cougars and their excitement for a team led by quarterback Steve Sarkisian.
Few people were likely talking about the inaugural season for the women’s soccer team. This new team was understaffed and had a limited number of fans due to a lack of exposure or interest in women’s sports as a whole. The team was expected to struggle out of the gate, but that would not last long.
“It was a slow process, we didn’t get a bunch of fans,” Norma Bertoch said, the first sports information director for the program. “People were just like, ‘Women? Soccer? Uh, so how do we do that?’”
BYU, in part due to Title IX legislation, began its search to field another competitive women’s team to add to its growing collection that already featured the likes of basketball, volleyball and gymnastics. The search didn’t go on long.
Women’s soccer was already played on campus but at the club level. It was coached by a former player, Rockwood, and had seen some promising results. Rockwood led the club team to a 128-25-9 record, two Western National Collegiate Club Soccer Association titles and second place in the NCCSA National Championship match.
Having grown up in and around competitive soccer, which included teams with men on the field as well, Rockwood had overcome many obstacles to that point as a player and coach. But no amount of club soccer matches could prepare her for what was to come: coaching a fully sanctioned NCAA soccer team.
“My thought was I was going to get this club team to the point of where and if we do transition to an NCAA status that we will be ready and be prepared so that BYU isn’t just starting at ground zero,” Rockwood said.
Rock said gaining a following for soccer was extremely difficult for the women’s team. Soccer as a sport was fighting for prominence in the United States—especially women’s soccer. “We didn’t know a lot about soccer, it was just getting started in the high schools, it wasn’t a big sport in the States.”
This battle was not fought alone. Although the initial group of players, coaches, trainers and managers in comparison to today’s staff and roster were small to start, the voices that this small group carried were loud and supportive. One of the loudest and most supportive was that of Bertoch.
Bertoch, a native of Chile, came to the US and went to school at BYU. She graduated with a degree in Communications and began her career working in broadcasting, including working for CNN and KBYU-TV. However, when she came back to Provo, an opportunity arose to work for BYU athletics when she took on the role of women’s sports publicist. She could not believe the opportunity in front of her.
“I thought they were a good program,” Bertoch said of the program at the time, recounting how the club team had to charter their own buses and often slept when traveling in the homes of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Rockwood started with a good group of girls, and then they only went up from there.”
Bertoch’s relationship with soccer began with her upbringing. As a child in Chile, she watched soccer every day. To many in South America, soccer was akin to a religion. Generally speaking, however, it was also seen as a male sport. Bertoch fell in love with the game and now she had an opportunity to change her view on soccer forever, as something more than just a man’s sport.
“I loved it,” Bertoch said. “I was super excited that we could get to do this. I saw the potential.”
Her first interaction with the soon-to-be head coach Rockwood was one of intrigue, as neither had coached or been part of a program at the NCAA level. Both loved the game, but neither had any prior experience in helping a soccer team adjust to a new, higher level of play. While Bertoch has grown to love Rockwood, neither knew what to expect at the time.
“I thought she was young,” Bertoch said. “She knew the sport of soccer. I think she probably felt overwhelmed by what it all means.”
Other crucial figures came to help, as Carolyn Billings and Robyn Smith-Bretzing both joined the program in 1995. Billings became the first ever trainer for the soccer team, and Smith-Bretzing was one of Rockwood’s first assistant coaches.
Smith-Bretzing couldn’t help but laugh when she thought about those early years. “Jen is a very competitive person to play on the club team was fun because she’s very competitive like me, so we got along well, and at other times we didn’t because we’d be competing against each other.”
This competitiveness motivated each of them to greatness, and Smith-Bretzing appreciated that about her friend and coach. “You could just tell that she loved soccer.”
Smith-Bretzing said that she also respected the process by which Rockwood was able to lead the program when she became head coach. “To be able to be the assistant to her and to help her in those first few years, coaching players and developing the program, it was a great experience.”
Other members of the athletic department helped mentor the young coach, including legendary former coaches Elaine Michaelis, Lu Wallace and Anne Valentine.
“I had some pretty strong, successful women coaches that were my administrators as we started the program,” Rockwood said. “And again, they gave me a lot of freedom in doing what I did, cause I was learning a lot myself. But they weren’t soccer people, they didn’t know much about soccer. So it was good that I had room to build, and do what I did, and they kind of left me to my own.”
Rockwood would build indeed. While their initial season was not perfect with some bumps along the way, the team finished with 11 wins and a winning record.
The team won 22 games the following season, losing only once, and won the Western Athletic Conference title. Unfortunately, due to BYU’s recent start as a NCAA sanctioned team, the relatively unknown WAC teams that BYU played against, and the limitation of only 48 teams that entered the tournament, the Cougars did not play in the NCAA tournament that year.
But the word was out. BYU was a team on the rise.
“I remember thinking we had such great success those first few years, that the expectation got pretty high,” Rockwood said. “But I think for me personally, I was like ‘maybe this is what I am supposed to be doing’ because it doesn’t make sense that we are having all of this success.”
After the initial shock of having a team, being tabbed as head coach of a new program, and having to ride the difficulty of her first two NCAA seasons, the training wheels were off. Any doubts or questions of her being able to lead the team into a new era were gone. This was her program now.
To many outside of the program, this immediate success may have come as a surprise. However, to several of those inside of the program, including Smith-Bretzing, it wasn’t a big shock.
“I think we always felt the program would be successful, so we weren’t surprised,” Smith-Bretzing said. “We knew that we had the athletes to compete at the collegiate level, we just needed to give it a shot.”
More success followed Rockwood. Over the next 25 years, her team won conference titles. She coached players into All-Americans. She helped turn a little-known prospect into a top scorer in the National Women’s Soccer League in Ashley Hatch. She’s won multiple Coach of the Year awards as the program has transitioned from the WAC to the Mountain West to the West Coast Conference, now standing on the precipice of joining a Power 5 conference in the Big 12. Despite a new office filled with awards, Rockwood can’t help but feel grateful.
“It’s kind of weird, huh?” Rockwood said, noting all of the accomplishments over her wall, “But when you kinda think about it, we feel very blessed. We’ve had so many unbelievable kids that come through this program that just put their heart and soul into it for their time at BYU. And that’s led the way for younger players to come through and wanna reach the success.”
That success would reach an all-new height if goalkeeper Cassidy Smith was somehow able to stop Florida State’s shot, and give the Cougars a shot to win the 2021 NCAA title.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. Zhao snuck the ball past Smith, and the Seminoles stormed the field, having clinched the national championship. The pain of being so close to winning it all must have hurt, but as she normally does, Rockwood could only think about how much this meant to her players, especially to her two seniors Colohan and Tucker. They were two more in a long line of All-Americans Rockwood helped produce.
“Phenomenal experience for all of us… some really special seniors,” Rockwood said. “Both (Colohan and Tucker) were leaders and both were phenomenal players. I’m really excited for them to take their skills and their passions on to the next level, and see how they are doing.”
If BYU women’s soccer fans have learned anything from Rockwood, it is that success always follows this program. With the Big 12 on the immediate horizon, don’t be surprised if success happens rather quickly.