When the BYU women’s soccer team broke their huddle after last week’s Blue and White Scrimmage, the players chanted one word: Protect.

It’s a good place to start as the Cougars try to rebound from a disappointing 2017 season that saw them miss the NCAA Tournament for only the second time in 12 seasons.

“It was one of our themes that came up in winter conditioning, to protect what matters,” said forward Madie Siddoway Gates, BYU’s lone senior. “Protect the home field, protect the goal, protect our legacy and protect each other. It embodies what matters for us.”

Protecting South Field was pretty much a given in the previous five seasons, where BYU had posted a 48-6-4 record. But in 2017, the Cougars were just 4-3-4 on the home field, finishing 7-8-4 overall. It was the program’s first losing season since 2004.

“We’ve got some great kids and some great pace,” BYU coach Jennifer Rockwood said. “We’ve got some great size and we have confidence after working hard since last fall. I think it will carry over.”

Where were we?

BYU struggled to score in 2017, managing just 1.68 goals per game and converting a .094 shot percentage. In the preseason, the Cougars pushed No. 1 UCLA at South Field before falling 1-0 and tied with rival Utah 1-1. BYU was 4-4-1 in West Coast Conference play, finishing in a tie with Loyola Marymount for fourth.

The Cougars’ top two scorers — Madie Mathews (nine goals, 20 points) and Nadia Gomes (five goals, 14 points) graduated, as did top defenders Taylor Isom and Stephanie Ney. Hannah Clark, a two-year starter at goalkeeper, also exhausted her eligibility. Midfielder Bizzy Bowen and forward Avery Walker were significant contributors who will be missed.

Time to step up

“For sure we graduated a lot of good players the past couple of years, but we had a lot of young players who picked up experience last year,” Rockwood said. “We just want to kind of add to that now.”

Youngsters such as junior Elise Flake (five goals, 12 points), sophomore Mikayla Colohan (three goals, five assists, 11 points), sophomore Cameron Tucker (four goals) and junior Rachel Bingham Lyman (four assists) will be counted on for continued growth to spark the offense. Gates has moved from midfield to forward and tallied two goals and an assist in the Blue and White Scrimmage.

Juniors Danika Bowman Serassio and Alyssa Jefferson have plenty of experience and will anchor the back line. The goalkeeper position will be claimed by junior Sabrina Macias Davis or sophomore Cassidy Smith, who have been splitting time since winter workouts began.

A strong freshman class, led by midfielder Olivia Wade, is expected to make a significant contribution. The other incoming freshman are forward Josie Bush (Boise, Idaho), midfielder Ashton Brockbank (Timpview), midfielder Bella Folino (Aliso Viejo, California) and forward Lytiana Akinaka (Haiku, Hawaii). Ella Ballstaedt, a sophomore forward, is a transfer from Utah who will push for playing time.

“We hope we’re strong on both sides of the field,” Rockwood said. “Last year on defense, we gave up more goals than we normally do but they mostly didn’t happen in the run of play. We gave up a lot of goals from set pieces, so we’ve spent a lot of time on that.

“On offense, I think we’ll be a great attacking team. Sometimes when you have the ball and you’re attacking, that’s the best defense to have.”

Big tests early

BYU opened the 2018 season with an exhibition match at NCAA runner-up UCLA, falling to the Bruins 2-1. The Cougars have a brutal start to the regular season, opening with road matches at Cal State Fullerton (Friday), Nebraska (Aug. 20) and Texas A&M (Aug. 24). The Cougars come home on Aug. 30 to take on the defending national champion in Stanford.

BYU was picked to finish third behind Santa Clara and Pepperdine in the WCC preseason poll.

“We’re all expecting a lot from each other,” Gates said. “We want to win a conference championship. That’s our goal. We have high expectations and the biggest thing is to hold each other accountable to those expectations.”

Follow Darnell Dickson on Twitter @darnellwrites or e-mail him at ddickson@heraldextra.com.

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