Column: Was this the greatest year in the history of BYU women’s athletics?
Courtney Wayment’s championship performance in the steeplechase two weeks ago was, quite literally, a runaway victory.
BYU’s living track legend led for the entirety of the 3000-meter race, taking a spacious lead after three laps that continued to grow steadily until recording the fastest finishing time in collegiate history at 9:16:00.
Basically, Wayment could have been crowned national champion after just three laps. She probably could have even tapped out and taken a break midway through without risking her title.
How fast was Wayment’s steeplechase time? Wayment crossed the finish line a whole nine seconds before the second place finisher, whose time ended up being clocked as the third-fastest mark in NCAA history.
If you want to challenge Courtney Wayment, you’d better come prepared to post some otherworldly results.
Wayment’s historic showing in the steeplechase is a near-perfect representation of the success of women’s athletics at BYU this past season: dominant from start to finish, reaching record-breaking speed and leaving everyone else behind in the dust.
Such a trend was evident in the annual WCC All-Women’s Sports Award standings, where BYU earned its ninth consecutive honor as the WCC’s top women’s athletic department based on a point system reflecting the results of inter-conference play.
BYU totaled 64.5 points in the 2021-22 season, second only to 2015-16 (65) for the most in its WCC tenure. The gap between BYU and second place Pepperdine — 15 points — was even greater than the 13.5 point margin separating Pepperdine from ninth-place San Francisco.
In its current nine year run, BYU has racked up a whopping 522 points — more than 100 ahead of second place Gonzaga (413.5). One might say such a lead is “Wayment-ian.”
Clearly this collective dominance across women’s sports at BYU has become the norm, but I’m not sure we fully understand the magnitude of this success and how truly impressive these athletes and programs have been.
BYU women’s soccer, volleyball, basketball and softball combined to go 117-21 (84.8%) over this past season with a 56-5 (91.8%) mark against WCC opponents. The four teams also managed a ridiculous 63-5 (92.7%) home record, with both volleyball and basketball going undefeated in Provo.
Women’s indoor and outdoor track and field each finished top-10 nationally, produced a combined 19 All-Americans and shattered 10 school records. Such a season would be considered extraordinary at any other school, but at BYU it’s just another brick in the wall.
Wayment wasn’t alone in racking up impressive hardware, as Whittni Orton and Ashton Riner each won individual national titles for cross country and javelin, respectively, for the first such championships in school history. Women’s cross country finished as WCC champs for the fourth straight year and as the national runner-up, with Diljeet Taylor — far and away the best overall coach on campus — winning her fourth consecutive WCC Coach of the Year award.
Simply put, the women’s cross country and track programs at BYU perform as if they came down from a higher league. It’s a real challenge to keep up with them since it feels like they’re breaking a new record every other week.
Jen Rockwood built the BYU women’s soccer program with her bare hands from the ground up. Nearly three decades later, Rockwood’s Cougars stormed all the way to December’s national championship game, taking top-ranked Florida State all the way to the final penalty kick before the clock struck midnight on BYU’s Cinderella season. Had it not been for a phantom offsides call which erased a Cameron Tucker goal, the Cougars may have stunned the Seminoles for the title.
Mikayla Colohan led the nation in points (51) and became the third ever three-time WCC Offensive Player of the Year in history, even adding Top Drawer Soccer’s Player of the Year award to her crowded trophy case as well. Colohan, Tucker, Bella Folino and a whole cast of fellow Cougars anchored the best scoring offense in the country, scoring 77 goals while allowing just 17 as one of the more well-conditioned two-way squads in recent memory.
Women’s volleyball did what women’s volleyball always does, winning its seventh conference title in the past eight seasons as Kenzie Koerber earned the program’s sixth WCC Player of the Year award over that same span. The Cougars couldn’t miss, ranking third in the country in hitting percentage (.330) and going undefeated in conference play for the first time since 1993.
I know that the Marriott Center can be deafening, but volleyball games at the Smith Fieldhouse are on a whole different level — it’s the world’s loudest indoor insane asylum. The Fieldhouse chaos spurred one of the best home court advantages in the country as head coach Heather Olmstead piloted the Cougars to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen for the sixth time in seven seasons.
BYU women’s basketball enjoyed a season so superb that its games spawned Daily Universe headlines proclaiming the Cougars were “slaying”, “mauling” and “slaughtering” their opponents. The word choice may be colorful, but it definitely wasn’t hyperbolic — BYU beat its opponents by an average of 20 points a game while leading the conference in scoring, shooting percentage, assists and net efficiency.
Prior to 2021, BYU hadn’t scored 100 or more points in women’s hoops since 2011. This past season, the Cougars did it on three separate occasions. The veteran squad wasn’t just exceptional, but rather historic, boasting three First Team All-WCC selections and All-Americans Shaylee Gonzales and Lauren Gustin.
While being bounced from the postseason earlier than anticipated, BYU earned its highest AP top-25 ranking (15) and NCAA tournament seed (6) in program history, winning the WCC regular season championship in a fitting end to Jeff Judkins’ illustrious career on the Marriott Center sideline.
For what it’s worth, our Universe game recaps for women’s hoops averaged 30% higher readership than our recaps for the men’s team. Somewhere out there, I’m sure Tegan Graham is smiling.
In a different case of postseason heartbreak, BYU softball was surprisingly denied an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament (an “absolute joke” according to BYUtv’s Spencer Linton) despite holding a higher rating percentage index (RPI) than 20 other tournament teams and ranking in the top five nationally for collective pitching and batting efficiency.
Despite its first postseason absence since 2004, Gordon Eakin’s program won a school-record 42 games, fielded 10 All-WCC selections and led the conference in every major offensive category. Most impressively, however, was the 17-game winning streak the Cougars rattled off to close out their schedule following a brutal April series loss to LMU that could have — and probably should have — derailed their season. Eakin’s team understood the magnitude of the situation and made a mad dash to salvage any tournament possibility, earning a share of the WCC title with LMU for BYU’s 13th consecutive conference crown.
The WCC softball statistic leaderboards were peppered with Cougars, as BYU had three players in the top five for batting average, four for runs batted in (RBI) and four for home runs, with hurlers Autumn Moffat-Korth and Chloe Temples both landing in the top five for earned run average, wins, saves and strikeouts on the mound.
Violet Zavodnik and Huntyr Ava were each first or second place in the league for average, RBI and homers, but both deserving candidates for WCC Player of the Year honors were snubbed in favor of LMU’s Georgia Blair (“comical,” Linton said), whose numbers paled heavily in comparison to BYU’s pair of sluggers.
Were softball voters just sick of voting for the Cougars? Or is there a full-blown WCC conspiracy targeted at Big-12 bound BYU?
Either way, it makes sense why the rest of the WCC might have an axe to grind. After all, BYU’s conference opponents managed just five total wins against the Cougars this year.
Not five wins per sport. Five wins total. Can you say “juggernaut?”
Sure, the WCC can act as petty as it wants about BYU’s Power 5 promotion, but I’m sure the rest of the league will breathe a collective sigh of relief on July 1 of next year when the Cougars officially achieve Big 12 status. Once that happens, every major women’s sports award and conference title will be up for grabs again after a decade of BYU supremacy.
Was this the greatest season in the history of BYU women’s athletics? Every team won like crazy, rewrote school record books and soared to new heights never before seen in Provo. The student athletes themselves even scored a groundbreaking NIL deal with SmartyStreets.
But it goes even deeper than that.
Students around campus buzzed about going to watch women’s volleyball smack Utah in the NCAA tournament. Fans waiting for men’s hoops to tip off against Central Methodist on Nov. 20 were glued to their phones to follow along as women’s soccer pulled off a late playoff upset over UVA. Every time Zavodnik hit the griddy on a home run trot, social media couldn’t get enough. Rowdy students in the crowd painted their chests for track meets while young girls painted fake stitches on their faces to look like Paisley Harding.
At the first women’s basketball game I covered this season — Nov. 13 against Fresno State — I was the only media member on press row. Overall attendance was sparse, likely only in triple digits. The postgame press conference was essentially just a pair of one-on-one interviews with Coach Judkins and Harding.
Four months later, a record 6,289 fans packed the Marriott Center for BYU’s home finale and senior night against Gonzaga. I’ve been to hundreds of sporting events in my lifetime, but the atmosphere at that game was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It was emotional. It was powerful. It truly was “the greatest show on earth,” and it had grown into something bigger than basketball.
Women’s athletics at BYU have always been important and successful, but this past season it meant even more. It was exciting, contagious and often awe-inspiring. You could feel it.
If only it could last forever.
Colohan, Wayment and Harding have all headed to the pros. Koerber, Graham and Moffat-Korth are out of eligibility and have hung up their Cougar blue for good. Judkins retired, Gonzales entered the transfer portal and women’s hoops is entering an uncertain new era with first-time college coach Amber Whiting at the helm.
Will the magic vanish? I would find that hard to believe considering Rockwood, Olmstead, Judkins and Eakin have more than 1,800 combined wins at BYU to couple with a 72.2% win percentage. More than 30 of Taylor’s runners have earned All-American honors, and she’ll probably have another 30 this time next summer. This past year wasn’t just a bunch of great teams clicking at once, but rather the product of well-established programs continuing to roll forward. Such a course isn’t easy to derail.
Women’s sports at BYU have owned the WCC and are sure to do damage in the Big 12. These athletes and coaches will continue to inspire young girls of Latter-day Saint and religiously diverse backgrounds alike to join the next generation of Cougar greats. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better destination for women’s athletics than BYU.
The future is bright and exhilarating. More records will fall, championships will follow and Cougar nation will continue to catch the vision.
But the overall magic of this past season will never be matched.
Jackson Payne is the lead columnist at Daily Universe Sports. Follow him on Twitter @jackson5payne.