Imagine a preseason training session that lasts six months.

The BYU women’s soccer team doesn’t have to imagine it. They’ve lived it.

The Cougars had one of their finest seasons in 2019, advancing to the Elite 8 for just the third time in school history. In the middle of their spring season, of course, came the pandemic. BYU was one of the lucky few programs that were able to work out and train on campus during the spring and summer but more bad news hit in August when the West Coast Conference opted to push the start of the season to late January of 2021.

The grind started all over again.

“We’ve played like five official Blue and White games against each other,” All-American midfielder Mikayla Colohan said. “And every day in practice is kind of like an unofficial Blue and White game. It’s been super weird, especially at the beginning trying to find new routines and new ways to get things working. I think overall it’s been positive. We’ve been able to gain some momentum in different ways, grow together in our team chemistry and getting to know our new culture.”

BYU head coach Jennifer Rockwood is entering her 26th season heading the program — 32nd if you count six years as the school’s club coach.

“It’s all been a unique experience that we’ve tried to maneuver through the best we can,” she said. “It’s hard to know where we are as a team until we play another opponent. A lot of decisions will come in the next few weeks. We want to attack on offense as much as we did last year. We want to play with a lot of pace and speed. We have a lot of options. We’re building a new back line so that’s been great for us to have some time to get used to that and feel good about it.

“We’ve been able to spend a lot of time together to let the girls get to know each other. A lot of teams during the pandemic haven’t had that opportunity so it’s been an advantage for us.”

Where were we?BYU had a magical season in 2019, going unbeaten (18-0-1) in the regular season and rising as high as No. 4 in the national polls. The Cougars earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and rolled past Boise State (5-1), Louisville (4-0) and North Carolina State (3-0) in Provo to earn a spot in the Elite 8. BYU ran into eventual national champion and top-ranked Stanford and lost 5-1 in Palo Alto to end the season.

Elise Flake and Colohan were both named first team All-Americans and defender Alyssa Jefferson earned third-team All-American honors. Colohan was also named West Coast Conference Player of the Year.

A starting placeFlake has graduated as well as most of the back line including Jefferson, Danika Serassio and Rachel Lyman from a defense that allowed just 15 goals in 23 matches. Sabrina Davis, a two-year starter at goalkeeper, has also moved on.

Colohan was selected as the 14th pick of the NWSL Draft a few weeks ago by the Orlando Pride but has decided to play her senior year at BYU before turning pro. Colohan is a wizard with the ball in the midfield, scoring 16 goals and dishing out seven assists in 2019.

Forward Cameron Tucker, who scored 12 goals and had nine assists, returns for her senior year. Playmaker Lizzy Braby (13 assists) has graduated so Rockwood is looking for some offensive punch from others. UCLA transfer Brecken Mozingo is eligible to play right away and former Utah Gatorade Player of the Year Olivia Wade, who started all 18 matches for BYU as a freshman, has returned from her church mission.

Others who will compete for time on the scoring line include senior Makaylie Moore, juniors Ashton Brockbank Johnson and Natalie Clark and sophomores SaraJayne Affleck, Ellie Maughan, Jamie Shepherd, Kendall Petersen and Rachel McCarthy.

Rebuilding the back line The Cougars got a big boost via the transfer portal during the off-season when they received commitments from defenders Grace Johnson (Mississippi) and Natalie Wells (Utah). Johnson started 56 matches for the Rebels during her career and Wells started 41 for the Utes before serving a church mission. Both are eligible to play in 2020. Josie Guinn Gelalich returns to the back line after starting all 23 matches there in 2019. Taking over in goal will be senior Cassidy Smith, who played in six matches last season.

Road warriorsDue to COVID-19 and the cold Utah winter BYU is playing just four matches at South Field in 2021. The Cougars have three matches at the Zions Bank Real Academy indoor facility before finally playing a home match against Santa Clara on March 13.

“It’s a beautiful facility and it’s great to have access to it,” Rockwood said. “A lot of college teams play scrimmages up there. Their indoor facility has two competition-sized soccer fields. It’s twice the size of our indoor practice facility on campus. On one side are bleachers and we’re probably just going to have family at those games.

“Right now, everyone is just so anxious to get back on the field. We want to let the girls play and be competitive. We love to play at South Field and we feel fortunate to have such a great fan base. Right now, we just want an opportunity to play — inside, outside, with fans, without fans — we just want to play.”

The 2021 schedule is loaded, with matches against Pac 12 teams (Utah, UCLA and USC) as well as two meetings each with WCC powers Santa Clara and Pepperdine.

BYUtv will televise or stream the women’s soccer games online when they are available. Saturday’s exhibition opener at Zions Bank Academy against Weber State will be televised on BYUtv and streamed on the BYUtv app. Game time is 5 p.m. MT.

Living up to high standards The women’s soccer team is one of the most successful programs on campus. Expectations are always high for Rockwood’s program and 2021 will be no different.

“No matter if the team has changed a lot, we still expect to play at the same high level, just with new girls,” Colohan said. “We always plan to win a conference championship and make a big run in the NCAA Tournament.”

Follow Darnell Dickson on Twitter

@darnellwrites or e-mail him at ddickson@heraldextra.com.

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