Top of her game: BYU women’s sports prepare for the Big 12
The two year waiting game comes to a close July 1 as BYU makes its Big 12 debut, with the school’s women’s sports prepared to hit the ground running.
Where football is front and center in BYU athletics, joining the Big 12 acts as a catalyst of increasing opportunities for BYU women’s sports.
“We’re going in with a ton of humility, a lot of grace, and a lot of confidence,” cross country head coach Diljeet Taylor said. “Women’s athletics has made a ton of progress. There’s a lot more visibility with women in sports than there was when I was an athlete and it’s inspiring.”
Moving from the West Coast Conference into the Big 12 introduces significant changes and each team is looking to adapt and find success in their upcoming seasons, respectively.
Coming off of her first year as a collegiate head coach, Amber Whiting is full of optimism for a future in the Big 12.
“A lot of players that would not necessarily talk to us before because they want to be Power 5 will talk to us now and get recruited by us,” Whiting said.
The BYU women’s basketball team will welcome five Gatorade state players in a recruiting class of top ranking, one being Coach Whiting’s daughter, Amari Whiting.
Originally committed to play for Oregon in the Pac 12, the No. 33 overall prospect in ESPN’s Top 100, is excited to begin her college career playing for BYU in the Big 12.
“We have a pretty good shot of being at very least in the final four,” Amari said. “We should be in the championship if we do our work early.”
Coach Whiting said they are laying the groundwork for success right now in offseason.
“One thing this group does not lack is a work ethic. They’re workhorses,” coach Whiting said
With the Big 12 comes bigger competition. “The teams are going to be better, faster, stronger, so every single night when we step out on the floor, we have to bring it,” coach Whiting said. “You can’t take a night off in the Big 12.”
BYU women’s soccer looks to make their ninth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance in 2023.
“We have high expectations for the soccer program and the goal is to win the Big 12 in our first year,” head coach Jennifer Rockwell said. “We’re prepared for the level of competition, which I know some other sports might not quite be ready for.”
The team brings in national experience, having recently advanced to the Quarterfinals of the College Cup in 2021.
“Our mindset is that we are national champions,” freshman Allie Fryer said. “I’m most excited for the notoriety because when you play in a bigger conference you get more exposure, which will be really nice so that I could potentially go pro after college.”
The Big 12 will honor BYU’s no-Sunday policy but playing on Saturday will not be a regular option for the soccer team.
“Our biggest challenge will be the scheduling and the logistics of playing Monday games after not being able to do any training on Sunday,” Rockwell said.
Despite the adjustments that will be needed along the way, the stars seem to have aligned for Rockwell going into the 2023 season.
An extra year of athlete eligibility, as a result of COVID-19, will bring back the starting seniors from 2022. “To return so much experience will be key not just for next season, but it’ll be key in preparing our younger players for the future of the Big 12,” Rockwell said.
Women’s track and field/cross country
In conclusion of the 2022 cross country season, the women’s team finished with its fifth-straight top-10 national ranking. Track and field continues to see female athletes advance to the NCAA indoor and outdoor championships annually.
“We’ve had a lot of success on the national level,” coach Diljeet Taylor said. “The Big 12 gives us championship experience, which we don’t tend to get until we’re on the national stage.”
Early opportunities for athletes to compete against teams headed toward the NCAA before the championship meet is an unmatched preparatory factor expected to yield success.
“We’ll get lots of benefits, more resources like trainers and nutritionists helping us compete against those bigger schools,” cross country freshman of the year Riley Chamberlain said.
With so much to look forward to, Taylor is pushing forward with no sign of intimidation.
“I’ve always had a let’s go mentality and I’m going to run with that,” Taylor said. “I’ve already been bantering back and forth with the other Big 12 coaches. [They] better be ready. We’re coming for [them].”
“We’re in really good shape right now and I think we’re definitely ready to compete and show the Big 12 what we’re about,” Chamberlain said.
With 11-straight NCAA appearances, BYU women’s volleyball is anticipating the higher level of competition to propel them to their 12appearance.
“We’re just sticking to business as usual. We know the formula for what works so we’re not changing very much,” head coach Heather Olmstead said. “We’ve been recruiting to win at a high level all these years.”
The Cougars are excited to face teams like Texas, the 2022 national champions, in their upcoming schedule.
“The WCC is super competitive, but playing those big dog teams that are always in the Sweet 16 is going to really push us and prepare us to compete for a national championship,” outside hitter Elyse Stowell said.
Not only does the Big 12 serve as the perfect championship training ground, but it also affords BYU greater exposure than ever seen before. According to UNESCO, 40% of all sports participants are women, yet women’s sports receive only around 4% of all sports media coverage.
“We get more eyes on our matches and we get to be in different areas of the country. I hope that it continues to grow the game across the country and that Cougar Nation tunes in on ESPN,” Olmstead said.
Ranked 33 nationally, assistant gymnastics coach Brogan Evanson has high expectations for her team within the Big 12.
“We’ve seen schools that are part of the Big 12 just get stronger and stronger,” Evanson said. “You rise to the level of your competition and that’s what we will do.”
Facing the national champions during the regular season schedule will provide plenty of opportunities to set and reach new records.
“It’ll be really cool to compete against Oklahoma this first year. They’re the number one team in the country right now so that will be valuable experience,” freshman of the year Kylie Eaquinto said.
Amidst the anticipation lies the challenge of managing change in the travel department.
“A lot of our current meets are driving distance so we just hopped on the bus,” Eaquinto said. “Now we’re looking at long travel days of getting on flights and that will definitely be very different than in the past.”
However, different is not always challenging, as seen from the increase of resources.
“We’ve already started to see the department hire on additional support staff in terms of marketing and social media and promoting our meets,” Evanson said.
“We’re ready to take on the next chapter of athletics,” Evanson continued. “Instead of feeling overwhelmed by this change, expect the gymnastics team to take it in stride and rise to the occasion.”
Going into her senior year, outfielder Violet Zavodnik has embraced the “Why not us?” mentality and hopes to pave the way for the generations of athletes that will follow her.
“We haven’t got a chance to play on a big stage like this because no one believes in us,” Zavodnik said. “The Big 12 took a chance on us and we want to show that we deserve to be here, we deserve to be in the tournament, and we deserve to get recognition.”
The BYU softball field, located directly across from the baseball field, often goes unnoticed.
“Women in sports are overlooked way more than they should be. Softball is normally blindsided by baseball, so I’m hoping Big 12 is the door that allows everyone to come and enjoy the sport as much as I do,” Zavodnik said.
With elevated competition and coverage, 2023 has the potential to be a breakthrough year for BYU women’s athletics.
“It’s gonna be loud. It’s gonna be wild. It’s going to be a great game because we are playing top teams and you’re gonna want to come back for more,” Zavodnik said.
BYU women’s sports begins the chase for tournament titles in August at the start of the women’s volleyball and soccer seasons.
“There’s new challenges, there’s new excitement, there’s new opportunities, and we are really looking forward to growing with the change,” coach Rockwell said.