There have been times — a lot of times, actually — when the only women’s soccer coach BYU has ever had seriously doubted whether she would coach the Cougars in the College Cup, otherwise known as the Final Four of the NCAA Division I women’s soccer championships.

NCAA College Cup Soccer

National semifinals

BYU (17-4-1)

vs. Santa Clara (15-5-2)

Friday, 7:30 p.m. MST

At Stevens Stadium, Santa Clara, California


Radio: BYU Sports Network/107.9 FM

Jennifer Rockwood is a dreamer, a motorcycle rider, a McDonald’s patron — she treats herself to a cheeseburger combo meal after every win — a motivational speaker, a brilliant recruiter and one of the premier college coaches, in any sport, in the country.

But she’s also a realist.

“To be honest, yeah, I did have doubts,” Rockwood said Tuesday. “It is something that has driven me for many years. We have been close. In 2016, we felt like we had a great opportunity, and we had such a great team, but it just hasn’t happened for us.”

Until now.

Rockwood’s Cougars (17-4-1) will play in their first College Cup in program history on Friday when they take on WCC foe and defending national champion Santa Clara (15-5-2) on the Broncos’ own pitch, Stevens Stadium, in the San Jose area. 

Why NCAA will move soccer championship match to Monday if BYU beats Santa Clara

The semifinal matchup begins at 7:30 p.m. MST and will be televised by ESPNU; Rutgers and Florida State will meet in the first semifinal. If BYU wins Friday, the championship game will shift from Sunday to Monday because the Cougars don’t play or practice on Sundays, for religious reasons. 

If BYU does not advance, the title game will be played Sunday.

For Rockwood, making it to the College Cup — even if it isn’t being played at a neutral site — is the realization of a lifelong quest.

“There were times you think, ‘Well, I have been fortunate to have a lot of success. We have won a lot of games against a lot of big opponents, We have won conference championships, we have been to the NCAA Tournament, but maybe the Final Four isn’t something that is going to happen for me.’” — BYU women’s soccer coach Jennifer Rockwood

“There were times you think, ‘Well, I have been fortunate to have a lot of success. We have won a lot of games against a lot of big opponents, We have won conference championships, we have been to the NCAA Tournament, but maybe the Final Four isn’t something that is going to happen for me,’” she said.

Rival coaches, BYU administrators and her own players say nobody deserves it more. Jennifer Rockwood is BYU women’s soccer, they say.

“Actually in the last several years I have come to terms with (not making it to the College Cup), but it is something that has driven me,” she said. “I have been coaching longer than I ever anticipated. I have been saying maybe one or two more years for probably about 15 to 18 years.

“But the chance to maybe get to where some of the coaches I have looked up to have been before (keeps her motivated), and I finally made it,” she continued. “So yeah, I am just trying to enjoy it as much as I can.”

BYU football coach Kalani Sitake poses with members of the BYU women’s soccer team prior to the team heading off to the NCAA College Cup, where the Cougars will face Santa Clara in the semifinals on Friday. | Rebeca Fuentes, BYU Photo

BYU officially started recognizing women’s soccer as an NCAA-sanctioned sport in 1995, partly to satisfy Title IX requirements, and tabbed Rockwood to run the program. 

It was an easy choice because the Oregon native who was a four-sport star in high school had been successfully playing for, and then running, the school’s club team since 1985, from 1985-88 as a player and from 1989 as the coach.

“Coach Rockwood has constructed BYU women’s soccer from its inception into one of the most respected programs in the country,” said BYU senior associate athletic director/senior woman administrator Liz Darger. “Over 27 years, the accomplishments of her student-athletes on the pitch and in the classroom, the popularity of BYU soccer camps and the packed stands at South Field are all evidence of the positive impact she continues to have on so many.”

BYU women’s soccer makes first-ever NCAA Final Four with win over South Carolina

Now, she deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as other legendary BYU coaches such as football’s LaVell Edwards, volleyball’s Elaine Michaelis and basketball’s Stan Watts. She’s become irreplaceable.

“The women that she has recruited and coached and mentored over the years are women that all of Cougar Nation can be proud of,” Darger said. “Jennifer is a true trailblazer in women’s athletics and I am thrilled for her to be leading her team into the College Cup.”

Rockwood’s accomplishments in Provo are numerous, including several outstanding NCAA Tournament runs that have fallen just short — until this year. This is the seventh time her teams have advanced to the Sweet 16 and fourth time they’ve made it to the Elite Eight.

Santa Clara coach Jerry Smith, in his 35th season, has watched Rockwood’s career unfold from the beginning, and especially after the Cougars joined the WCC in 2011 and began competing against the nationally prominent Broncos on a regular basis.

“She’s a great coach,” Smith said. “To have had that consistency over a 27-year career that she has had is just remarkable. Her teams are great every year. It is really hard to have that kind of consistency over that long period of time.”

Smith, whose team beat BYU 1-0 on Oct. 30 and wound up sharing the conference title with the Cougars, said they have had some “great battles with BYU over the years, and this is probably their best team.”

The BYU women’s soccer team received a fitting sendoff this week as it left campus for the College Cup in Santa Clara, California. The Cougars face the Broncos Friday in the semifinals, with a shot at the NCAA championship on the line. | Rebeca Fuentes, BYU Photo

Even last spring, when Santa Clara was on its way to its second national title (the 2020 season was played last spring, due to COVID-19), the Broncos fell 2-1 to the Cougars in a nonconference match at home.

“They are a great defensive team, and they are an unbelievable offensive team and so Jennifer deserves a lot of credit for consistently putting together one of the best teams in the country and for this year in particular having this amazing team,” Smith said. “You have to have an imagination, you have to have some flexibility if you are going to do it over a long period of time. … It is no surprise to us, the run that they are on.”

Rockwood says the Cougars aren’t satisfied just because they’ve reached this “huge milestone.” She said the seniors wrote “national championship” on a board in the locker room before the season started, somewhat to her chagrin, and aren’t about to let go of that dream now.

“This means a lot,” she said. “I have had the opportunity to coach some amazing athletes over the years and we really have had some fantastic teams, some teams that have been really close to getting to this spot, and we haven’t quite gotten there until now.

“Obviously, I am thrilled,” she said. “I have worked pretty much my whole career to get to this point and I am just going to try to enjoy it and not to put too much pressure on us. We have had our ups and downs this season, and just like any team, you battle through the rough times and learn from them and try to play your best soccer at the end of the season.

“Right now I feel we are playing our best soccer,” she continued. “We are going to try to keep things the same way we have been doing the last few weeks and hopefully that will do a lot.”