At the start of the 2021 women’s soccer season, the seniors on BYU’s women’s soccer team wrote “national championship” on the white board in their locker room. That was the Cougars’ unmistakable goal all season.

Coach Jennifer Rockwood’s 27th team almost made it happen for the first time in school history, but the Cougars came up just a hair short.

In the space of three days in the College Cup, otherwise known as the Final Four in NCAA women’s soccer, the Cougars experienced the unbelievable joy of victory and the excruciating sting of defeat — both times in penalty kicks.

“We had a phenomenal year. You hate to be on the losing side, especially in PKs. But you win some, and you lose some, when it goes to PKs. We have been on both sides of that.” — BYU women’s soccer coach Jennifer Rockwood.

Playing in their first national championship game, the Cougars fell to now three-time champion Florida State 4-3 in the shootout after neither team scored in the first 110 minutes at Stevens Stadium in Santa Clara, California.

BYU had advanced with a win in penalty kicks over fellow West Coast Conference foe Santa Clara in the semifinals on Friday night, but couldn’t find the same magic against the best team in the country.

“We had a phenomenal year,” said Rockwood. “You hate to be on the losing side, especially in PKs. But you win some, and you lose some, when it goes to PKs. We have been on both sides of that. But just really proud of the way we competed tonight, the way we represented ourselves and our school and our conference.”

Having advanced further than any BYU team before them, the No. 4 seed Cougars fell to 18-5-1, while top overall seed FSU improved to 22-1-2 and is now 3-3 in national championship matches. Last spring, Florida State lost 4-1 to Santa Clara in penalty kicks after the match ended in a 1-1 tie.

The Seminoles were able to use that experience to their advantage despite a pro-BYU crowd in northern California’s Bay Area.

“Everyone that was here was treated to a heckuva soccer game with two good teams. I thought that BYU gave us everything that we could handle,” said FSU coach Mark Krikorian. “Extremely proud of our group. I thought we played well, played smart, played hard. But BYU matched us all along the way.”

In the shootout, Mikayla Colohan, Brecken Mozingo and Olivia Wade were successful for the Cougars. But FSU goalkeeper Cristina Roque guessed right twice, saving shots by BYU’s Jamie Shepherd and Bella Folino, and that was the difference.

BYU goalkeeper Cassidy Smith, Friday’s hero for the Cougars, stopped FSU’s third attempt in PKs, taken by Gabby Carle, but when Yujie Zhao’s shot found the back of the net, the heavy favorites began celebrating the big win.

Zhao earned tournament MVP honors.

BYU’s Colohan, Cameron Tucker and Laveni Vaka made all-tournament team.

“Like Jen said, PKs are tough,” said Colohan, BYU’s first three-time All-American in soccer. “They can go either way. I am just really proud of my team and especially Cam (Tucker) and just happy to have been part of it.”

The Cougars lost despite matching FSU shot for shot in the first 110 minutes, and actually had more scoring opportunities.

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“It always sucks losing on PKs,” Tucker said. “Our team did great. We were hustling, we worked hard on offense and defense, and sometimes it just doesn’t go your way on offense. But yeah, I think overall we did really well and I am so proud of how we played this whole year and this whole tournament.”

The underdog Cougars almost scored in the ninth minute, a goal that possibly could have changed the complexion of the match if it had held up. However, it was ruled that Tucker was offsides before she nailed a shot past Roque.

ESPNU analyst Julie Foudy said replay showed that it looked to be the right call by the official. Tucker didn’t dispute the call in a Zoom session with reporters after the match.

“The second I saw (Colohan) with the ball I started to make a run, and I didn’t know that it was offsides until I saw the ref pulled her flag up,” Tucker said. “But yeah, it was a great play and I wish I hadn’t been offsides. It was a great pass by Kayla.”

Both teams had their chances in the overtime sessions.

BYU had a good chance in the first overtime when Colohan headed Olivia Wade’s corner kick on frame. But Roque snared it in the 93rd minute.

In the second overtime, FSU got the best look but Smith caught Jenna Nighswonger’s shot cleanly in the 105th minute.

The Seminoles has a chance to score in the 88th minute, but after Zhao’s corner kick was headed off the cross bar, BYU’s Grace Johnson blocked Jody Brown’s point blank shot. The ball struck Johnson in the face and she had to come out of the game.

“Heckuva national championship, heckuva final,” said Krikorian. “Obviously we came up quite big in the penalties at the end with Cristina saving a couple and Yujie burying the final one. It feels quite nice to be sitting on this side of it. Last year I thought we were quite good and we had some unfinished business that we needed to address.”

Colohan, who was drafted last spring but decided to return this fall to help the Cougars make one last run at a national title, sustained a right shin injury in the first half when she collided with FSU’s Jaelin Howell, who received a yellow card on the play. Colohan had to be helped off the field, but returned in the second half.

“I know it was a 50-50 ball and I beat her to it, and next thing I know I felt cleats up to my shin and I couldn’t feel my leg,” Colohan said. “I stood up and I definitely didn’t want to go out that way. Luckily my leg felt OK and I was able to finish out the game.”

Florida State generally controlled the action in the first half, and had 54% of possession time. However, BYU had three shots to FSU’s two, and the only shot on goal.

Howell body-checked BYU’s Kendell Petersen in the 83rd minute, but did not receive her second yellow. Foudy said it should have been a yellow, which would have sidelined Howell. 

The Cougars out-shot the Seminoles 8-5 in regulation, and had three shots on goal to FSU’s one.

However, Florida State had six corners to BYU’s two.

“It was a battle. It was a grind. Playing against Florida State is always going to be tough. They have some great players and they played really good soccer,” Colohan said. “But we definitely battled. I was proud of us. We defended hard. We kept them from scoring a few times they got close, and we had our fair share of opportunities as well.”