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What’s the secret to BYU’s unprecedented success in NCAA women’s sports this year?

BYU is currently No. 3 in the nation in the Capital One Women’s Cup race after second-place finishes in soccer and cross-country and a Sweet 16 appearance in volleyball

BYU forward Cameron Tucker and Florida State Seminoles Heather Payne compete during the NCAA national soccer championship.
BYU forward Cameron Tucker and Florida State Seminoles Heather Payne compete during the NCAA national soccer championship at Stevens Stadium at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif. on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Before the start of the 2021-22 school year, all of BYU’s female athletes gathered for a meeting at the school in Provo and received white crew neck shirts that had the slogan “Better Together” on them.

The student-athletes were urged by their coaches to support each other by attending other teams’ events and games, and by wearing the shirts to those activities in a show of solidarity.

Good call.

BYU’s women’s sports teams have almost always been outstanding, but this year they are taking it to another level. Support from BYU school and athletic department officials has been cited as one of the primary reasons for the unprecedented success, but the players say that camaraderie and togetherness that the coaches have been stressing has also been a key.

“One reason why BYU women’s sports are so successful is we all support each other and root for each other,” said recently graduated women’s soccer star Grace Johnson, who transferred from Ole Miss before the 2020 season (which was played last spring). “Our locker rooms are kinda right next to each other, so we have that interaction with each other every day. That creates a nice sense of community and a good sense of excellence.”

Basketball star Paisley Harding, in her fifth season, agrees.

“I know we root on the soccer team, the volleyball team, the other teams, all the time,” she said. “And track and cross-country teams are so good, too. It is so fun. It is a good community of support that we have here.”

Another member of the BYU women’s soccer team that recently played in the national championship match, center-back Laveni Vaka, said the players received the schedules of other teams, along with the white crew necks, at that get-together back in September and have referred to them often the past six months.

“Coaches have been super helpful in getting us to pull for each other and support each other,” she said. “Being a female athlete at BYU is really cool. We get to represent more than just ourselves. We also get to (change) what some people think of us. We have a big sense of pride in that.”

Building toward a record year

During almost every college football game shown on television by ESPN the past few weeks, and most especially during the Capital One Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve, the Capital One Cup standings were given significant air time.

On the women’s side of the competition, Power Five schools such as Florida State, Wisconsin, Rutgers, Louisville and Nebraska rank high in the competition that honors the best all-around sports schools, with more weight given to high finishes in more popular sports like soccer, volleyball, basketball and gymnastics.

Then there’s Big 12-bound BYU, without question the top non-Power Five sports school in the country, especially in women’s sports.

The Cougars currently rank third in the Capital One Women’s Cup standings, behind soccer national champion Florida State and volleyball national champion Wisconsin. The Seminoles and Badgers have 60 points apiece, while BYU — which finished second in soccer and cross-country and ranked ninth in volleyball after losing a five-set heartbreaker last month in the Sweet 16, has 54.

If the second-place cross-country finish last November in Tallahassee, Florida, garnered as many points — 36, instead of 12 — as volleyball and soccer, BYU’s women would sit in first place.

What’s the secret?

What’s going on in Provo? What’s in the water at the south end of the Wasatch Mountain range?

Don’t look now, but BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe and his top deputies, Liz Darger and Brian Santiago, have built one of the top women’s sports programs in the country.

“Tom Holmoe just shows a lot of love to the women’s sports teams, and we have felt that,” Vaka said.

Added Johnson, who has something to compare it to because she spent three years at Ole Miss, playing in 59 games for the Rebels: “Ole Miss was awesome. But I do feel like our administration at BYU connects and reaches out to the female athletes much more. I feel a lot more seen and valued at BYU. I have a lot more close relationships with our administration than I did at Ole Miss.”

While agreeing that BYU’s administration provides outstanding support and encouragement, but acknowledging “there is always more to be done” in terms of providing the same perks and extras that the men’s basketball team gets, Harding said it all starts with the coaches.

BYU Cougars guard Paisley Harding (13) drives on Utah Utes guard Brynna Maxwell (11) as Utah and BYU women compete in a basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021.
BYU guard Paisley Harding drives on Utah guard Brynna Maxwell at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“The people here at BYU are special. They know what it takes to be great, they know the sacrifices that we need to put in. There is so much sacrifice that goes in at BYU as it is, being a private school, so yeah, the coaches do a great job,” Harding said.

The 5-foot-9 senior, an All-WCC performer last spring, is married to former BYU basketball player Connor Harding, who is now starring for Utah Valley University.

“They have hired so many great people to lead us young women. We have great women in our programs to look up to, in that sense, for sure,” Harding said.

More wins and recognition to come

The Cougars aren’t finished making their mark on the 2021-22 sports seasons yet, either.

Coach Jeff Judkins’ women’s basketball team is off to a 12-1 start, 2-0 in the WCC, heading into Thursday’s game at the Marriott Center against Saint Mary’s. The Cougars are ranked No. 18 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll, and have wins over P5 schools Washington State, Arizona State, No. 17 Florida State, No. 22 West Virginia and rival Utah in their back pocket.

Their only loss to date was a 99-91 setback in overtime to the Big 12’s Oklahoma in Norman in a game in which they were outshot 32-12 from the free-throw line.

“When you are coaching women’s sports at BYU, you have to bring your ‘A’ game, with how good the other women’s sports are here,” Judkins said. “For me, with volleyball and soccer in the fall always being so good, you gotta make sure your team is ready to go.”

The other “Group B” women’s sports that garner big Capital One Cup points are gymnastics, softball and two sports that BYU doesn’t sponsor: lacrosse and beach volleyball.

BYU’s women’s gymnastics team, the defending Mountain Rim Conference champion, is currently ranked No. 16. The Cougars opened the 2021 season with a score of 195.225 at the third-annual Rio Tinto Best of Utah meet last Friday, not bad considering coach Guard Young’s squad was missing nine athletes due to COVID-19 issues and injuries.

BYU’s softball team has been a fixture in the NCAA Tournament every year, having made 16 straight appearances in the Big Dance, and is coming off a 38-17 season in 2020 and its 12th consecutive conference championship under coach Gordon Eakin.

BYU’s women’s teams are also strong in the remaining “Group A” sports, particularly indoor track and field, golf and outdoor track and field.

The Cougars’ women’s golf team, coached by former standout player Carrie Summerhays Roberts, concluded its fall season ranked 23rd in the country and with a fifth-place finish at the Dale McNamara Invitational in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Lila Galeai, Annick Haczkiewicz, Allysha Mae Mateo and Kerstin Fotu lead the team into the spring season, which begins Feb. 7 in Texas.

Not a new thing

Judkins, who played basketball at the University of Utah and in the NBA for five seasons before returning to the U. to coach under Rick Majerus, took an assistant coaching job at BYU in 1999 and immediately noticed the school put a premium on having strong female sports programs. Judkins says legendary women’s volleyball coach and athletic director Elaine Michaelis deserves a lot of credit for establishing that expectation of excellence.

“To tell you the truth, since I have been at BYU, women’s sports have always been pretty strong,” Judkins said. “This is not the first year we’ve done really well. We’ve probably done better this year on a national level, but we’ve always been really, really strong.”

Harding said it has always been “a point of pride” among BYU’s female athletes and women’s teams to outperform their male counterparts, even if those men’s teams receive far more publicity for their successes.

“Everybody just wants to win here at BYU,” Harding said. “I just think there is a great winning culture here that has been passed down, and carried on, and no (team) wants to see it end.”

Never afraid to speak her mind, Harding appreciates the support but says more can be done at BYU and throughout the country to promote women’s sports and put them on an even playing field with the men.

Members of the BYU women’s volleyball team pose for a picture during workout prior to their Sweet 16 match against Purdue in Pittsburgh, Dec.8, 2021.
Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

“We get good support, but I think there is always more than can be done for women in sports,” she said. “So far, things have been good. I think a big thing is to ask the right questions of the administration. Sometimes women just in general maybe sit back and don’t realize what they deserve.

“I think the teams here at BYU deserve a lot, especially the women’s teams, so I think when we start expecting more, playing more, playing great, the administration will follow. They have done a great job so far, but there is always more to be done.”

Success in the Directors’ Cup standings

While the Capital One Cup awards points for high finishes based on the popularity of the sports, as previously mentioned, the Learfield Directors’ Cup is the industry standard and recognizes achievements in all sports equally.

The Directors’ Cup winter standings will be published Thursday, and BYU is expected to be in the top 25, thanks to the aforementioned success of its women’s sports last fall (and strong football and men’s cross-country seasons).

Last July, BYU finished No. 17 in the final standings for the 2020-21 sports year, its highest finish since 2001-02. It was BYU’s eighth top-25 finish and third-highest finish in BYU athletics history.

And the Cougars have all those women’s sports programs to thank.

The women’s cross-country team won the national championship in Stillwater, Oklahoma, on March 15 (the 2020 season was pushed to 2021 due to the pandemic). Women’s volleyball added 69 points, while women’s track (67.5), gymnastics (53), softball (50) and women’s basketball (50) also contributed.

“It has been a remarkable athletic season, in a truly unprecedented time. A huge congratulations to our resilient, tough, committed, passionate, fun-loving student-athletes and coaches for all that they were able to accomplish,” Holmoe said in a school news release.

Coming close to championships

With a break here or there, BYU could easily have won two national championships last fall. Led by Whittni Orton’s individual title (and second-fastest time in race history), the women’s cross country team almost repeated the championship it won eight months prior. Only season-long No. 1 North Carolina State was better than BYU that day.

BYU’s Whitney Orton was the individual champion at the NCAA cross-country championships Nov. 20, 2021, in Tallahassee, Florida. The women’s team finished runner-up.
Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

Led by coach Diljeet Taylor, the Cougars have finished first or second in the last three NCAA women’s cross-country meets.

BYU’s run to second place in the College Cup, the NCAA women’s national championship for soccer, was not as expected, but just as impressive. The Cougars played No. 1 Florida State to a scoreless draw, but fell 4-3 in penalty kicks in Santa Clara, California.

Before upsetting host Santa Clara in the semifinals, 27-year coach Jennifer Rockwood said making it to the College Cup was a “huge milestone” for her program, and credited the administration and the caliber of athletes she is able to recruit to BYU.

“I have had the opportunity to coach some amazing athletes over the years and we really have had some fantastic teams, some teams who have been really close to getting to this spot, and we haven’t quite been there,” Rockwood said. “I just have a lot of support around me, a lot of great people, and an amazing staff that has helped me in my job. I got more support than I think I have ever had right now as a coach. And that has helped me try to be at my best.”

How far can they go?

How good is this BYU women’s basketball team? Judkins, 65, says it has the potential to be one of his three best teams in his 20-year tenure, joining the two teams that reached the Sweet 16 (2002 and 2014).

“This is the best passing team that I have had,” he said. “I think is probably one of the best offensive teams that I have had. And then we have really good depth. I can go a lot of different ways with this team. I can go big, small, average.”

The team features two all-timers — Harding and guard Shaylee Gonzales — and phenomenal role players such as shot-blocker Sara Hamson, rebounder Lauren Gustin and glue players Maria Albiero and Tegan Graham.

“This team is special, and very competitive,” he said, noting that this team likes to practice longer and work harder than any team he’s coached.

“We have a lot of firepower. Paisley is one of the best all-around players in our league — great defender, can score, can shoot it. Shaylee is a special player. She can rebound, score, hit the shot, penetrate. Lauren is by far the best rebounder I have ever coached.”