It’s the dream that often seems almost impossible for programs like BYU when they think about reaching the NCAA tournament:
A No. 1 seed.
No need to pinch yourselves, Cougar women’s soccer players. The dream is now a reality.
“Our team has never done so well, had such a high ranking and such a high seed in the tournament,” said BYU senior forward Carlee Payne Holmoe. “We’re all so excited. We felt like we deserved to have a No. 1 seed. To see our name up there was awesome.”
In an announcement made on Monday afternoon, the No. 4-ranked Cougars earned the No. 1 seed in their section of the 64-team Women's College Cup. It's the highest seed ever for a women's team at BYU.
The Cougar players watched the unveiling of the brackets at the BYU Broadcasting Building and erupted in celebration when they heard their seeding.
“I can’t tell you how excited I was and what an honor it is to get a first seed,” said senior defender Lindsi Lisonbee Cutshall. “We’ve worked so hard and I think we’ve earned it. It’s just exciting.”
Cougar head coach Jennifer Rockwood said she hoped the body of work assembled by her team during the season -- which included a win over Penn State, another No. 1 seed -- would be enough to get her squad that top line.
“You never know,” she said. “All you can do is everything you can during the season to get the best draw and make it to the tournament. That was our goal at the beginning of the season, particularly after being left out last year. That was great motivation. From not being in to going to having a No. 1 seed shows that these girls have done a great job this season.”
BYU will start its tournament run against a familiar -- and dangerous -- opponent in Utah State, the Western Athletic Conference tournament champions.
The Cougars defeated the Aggies, 1-0, in a close, hard-fought game in Logan on Sept. 20. That means BYU knows just what a challenge it will be up against.
“We’re very familiar with Utah State and they’ve had a great season,” Rockwood said. “They gave us a good battle at their place, but we’re excited to be at home and hopefully a lot of fans will come out and support us. I know the girls will be really excited to play.”
Holmoe said the players recognize how good Utah State is but also are confident in their own abilities.
“They don’t let in very many goals,” she said. “They are hard to play against. They are aggressive, they are strong and they want it. But I confident in our team and that if we are playing our best, we can beat any team in the country.”
Cutshall added: “They are a really good team and it will be a tough game, but I think we all want it so badly that we’re going to go out there and give it our best.”
A victory over the Aggies could possibly set up a rematch with Washington, a team the Cougars beat 3-1 in Provo on Sept. 15. The Huskies will host Auburn in its first round match.
The Cougars enjoyed one of the best seasons in school history, finishing 18-1-1 and winning the West Coast Conference championship. BYU received the official title trophy as well as individual commemorative plaques and t-shirts in a ceremony preceding the selection show on Monday.
“I was so proud, particularly of our seniors,” Rockwood said. “It was great to pull of a conference championship in one of the best soccer conferences in the country. They’ve worked so hard and come so far.”
Looking back on the season, both the coaches and players recalled times when the team demonstrated how good it was going to be.
“I think it came down to the first game we played against UC Irvine,” Rockwood said. “They were a strong tournament team the year before. Getting the goal in overtime kind of set the tone. Winning and losing is always a fine line. Right from the beginning, we knew we were capable of big things this year.”
Cutshall pointed to the win over the Nittany Lions as a key moment for the Cougars.
“That was a special game for us,” she said. “We realized that if we could beat them, we could beat anyone. And we didn’t just beat them; we killed them.”
While the number of big wins far outweighed the disappointments, Payne said the one loss -- a 1-0 defeat at Utah on Aug. 25 -- played a big role in shaping the team.
“Looking at our record and seeing that one loss to Utah is hard,” she explained. “But I think it has helped us so much this season. I think without that loss, we wouldn’t have been a No. 1 seed.
“After that loss, we all changed something in us and we all wanted to come out even harder. With that, we have played so much better throughout the season.”
Those games, as well as wins over tournament teams Long Beach State, Pepperdine and Portland, proved the Cougars tested themselves against very good competition.
“We only gave up four goals in a very strong conference,” Rockwood said. “Defensively we are very solid. This year we’ve really added to our attack. We seem to be a lot more dynamic going into the attacking third. We expect to score two or three goals every game.”
According to the brackets posted on NCAA.com, BYU will begin the 2012 Women's College Cup on Friday against the Aggies with kickoff scheduled for 6 p.m. at South Field in Provo.
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or email@example.com. He can also be followed on Twitter at @JaredrLloyd.