It's been nine years since the BYU women's soccer reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Women's College Cup.
In 2003, the Cougar run ended with a 3-1 loss to Connecticut.
But that game wasn't at South Field in front of thousands of screaming BYU supporters.
The No. 2-ranked Cougars will look to advance to the Final Four for the first time ever when they host No. 13 North Carolina Friday night (6 p.m., BYUtv) at South Field.
"We’ve been close several times but it has been a magical season," said BYU head coach Jennifer Rockwood. "Everything from here is a bonus but the girls are ready to play their best game on Friday night.
“It would be a dream come true to continue on. As a coach, what you aspire to is winning a national championship. We’ve had some amazing programs over the years and great teams, but this is as close as you can get to taking that next step, so it’s a big night."
The university announced Thursday that the game had already sold out, meaning the Cougars will have the backing of a crowd of more than 4,000 fans.
"We’re excited to have them on our field with our fans and playing the best soccer we’ve ever played," said BYU senior Carlee Payne Holmoe. "It will be a great game."
The Cougars have always had great support but the tournament run has upped the level of excitement around BYU.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve been fortunate to have a great base,” Rockwood said. “With some of the teams we’ve brought in and play our style of soccer and have success, I think a lot of people have poked their head in and seen what it is all about. They’ve experienced the passion and energy and excitement and come back for more. It’s a great atmosphere.”
The only thing standing between the Cougars and a trip to San Diego next week for the Final Four is a talented Tar Heel squad who has one of the most storied histories in the sport.
"You can’t say enough about North Carolina and what they have done, not just in women’s soccer but in the NCAA in all the sports," Rockwood said. "It’s been a dynasty Anson Dorrance has created and the program and the wins and the expectations there. We are excited to have an opportunity to play them on our home field and I think the girls will be ready."
North Carolina has won 20 NCAA Championships including three in the last six years. But this season hasn't been quite up to Tar Heel standards as the team enters the game with a record of 12-5-3.
But BYU knows everyone at this level is very good and thus the Cougars will need to play very well to get past North Carolina.
"We’re excited," Holmoe said. "They are a very well-known, successful program."
Both teams needed some dramatics to get through the Sweet 16. BYU edged Marquette on penalty kicks 6-5 at South Field on Nov. 17, while the Tar Heels needed penalty kicks as well to get past Baylor (4-2).
“We talk about creating memories every weekend and we’ve sure created some amazing ones,” Rockwood said. “We certainly don’t want to go down to the last minute, but the girls have really stepped up and they have found ways to win. I think that’s what special teams do.”
Holmoe, who scored the game-winning penalty kick against Auburn in the previous game, had to endure an agony of emotions after her penalty kick shot against Marquette was blocked.
“It was so crazy,” she said. “No team really wants to go into penalty kicks. It’s a very stressful, pressure thing. Especially for me missing it, I was nervous and scared. I didn’t want to be the one to end things for us. But that’s why you have a team. They had my back and were able to put the game away.”
Now the Cougars are set for the next big showdown. They will rely on a solid senior class and a large group of contributing underclassmen to put them in position to be successful.
On defense, BYU senior Lindsi Cutshall has been the anchor for a strong backline.
“We’ve played a very competitive schedule and faced some very good attacking teams,” Rockwood said. “Lindsi just covers so much ground. She’s so quick and agile, ao solid in the air and she brings a confidence to the field. The players around her know she’s capable of running anyone down, blocking shots, winning head balls, and that brings up the level of play of everyone around her.”
The Cougar coach said that Cutshall and the rest of the seniors have been a huge reason why BYU has been able to have this type of season.
“This is a fantastic senior class,” Rockwood said. “They came in as freshmen and made a huge impact on our program. I remember our first weekend we went out to a Penn State tournament and beat two Top 25 teams. We knew this was a great group of girls that would carry us through.”
If the Cougars are able to get past Friday’s game, they will advance to the Final Four which is currently scheduled to have the semifinals take place on Nov. 30 and the championship on Dec. 2. The dates will be adjusted if BYU reaches that point, since the Cougars don’t play on Sunday.
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be followed on Twitter at @JaredrLloyd.