Jennifer Rockwood is the accidental coach. She never planned to be a coach. She was a business finance major at BYU’s Marriott School of Management with plans to pursue an MBA. Then she got lured into the coaching business — temporarily, she thought — and here she is, three decades later, overseeing the No. 1-ranked women’s collegiate soccer team in the country.
“I was young and cheap and got the job. I thought I’d give it a try for a few years.” — BYU soccer coach Jennifer Rockwood
The Cougars are ranked No. 1 for the first time in the program’s history after a couple of near misses (they were ranked No. 2 during the 2012 regular season and again in the final 2021 poll). The Cougars defeated No. 1-ranked defending national champion UCLA 3-1 two weeks ago in front of 5,200 fans in Provo to ascend to the top spot. Behind BYU in the rankings, in order, are Stanford, North Carolina, UCLA and Florida State. The Cougars face TCU, ranked 10th in last year’s final rankings, Thursday night in Provo.
Rockwood, a four-sport prep athlete in Portland, played on BYU’s club soccer team as a student at BYU and eventually found herself in a quasi coach’s role, scheduling games and arranging travel. When she graduated in 1989, school officials asked her to coach the team. She took a teaching job at a private school and coached BYU’s club team for six years. In 1995, when the NCAA made women’s soccer a sanctioned sport, Rockwood applied for the coaching job.
“I was young and cheap and got the job,” she says. “I thought I’d give it a try for a few years.”
A few years has stretched into 29 years — 35 if you count the club era. She is the only coach the program has ever known. Few would recognize Rockwood in public (and you get 10 points if you can name one or two of her players), but she has had an Edwardsian career. If school officials aren’t planning to rename South Field in her honor, they should.
Rockwood owns a 435-126-54 career record (eighth most wins among active coaches) and a .751 winning percentage (also eighth). She ranks 12th in all-time career wins. Her teams have finished in the top six of the national rankings 10 times. They have reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament seven times and the Elite Eight three times.
In 2021, BYU met three-time national champion Florida State in the national championship game. They played 110 scoreless minutes. FSU finally prevailed in a shootout, 4-3.
Two years later, Rockwood has the Cougars rolling again after rebuilding the team last year in the wake of heavy graduation losses.
Rockwood has seen the program and the game evolve. She was there during the lean years of the club era, when she and her teammates bought their own equipment, traveled to away games in station wagons and vans and slept on the floor of whatever homes would take them in.
In the decades since, BYU has risen to become a regular member of the nation’s top 25 and Rockwood has become an institution. She has been offered opportunities to coach at other schools, but, as she puts it, “I haven’t had the desire to coach anywhere else. I strongly believe in BYU and its mission.”
The team has created a culture and a fan base. Two years ago, NCAA.com posted a story under the headline, “The five best places to watch college soccer, according to the fans.”
BYU’s South Field was first on the list, with this explanation: Due to its well-groomed natural grass, South Field has served as the practice facility for the United States Men’s National Soccer Team. The attendance record at South Field has been broken multiple times in the past few seasons, most recently in September 2015 when 5,620 fans attended a women’s soccer match between host BYU and in-state rival Utah. In the latest attendance records for women’s college soccer in 2019, BYU led the nation in average home attendance and total home attendance.
Says Rockwood, “Even in the early 2000s we were getting more fans than most programs across the country. I think it’s one of the best places to play college soccer; not many teams get the support we do.”
The winning has made it easier to attract fans, of course, and it probably doesn’t hurt matters that many of the players are homegrown. When BYU played in the national championship game two years ago, nine of the team’s 11 starters were from Utah, as were 24 of the 30 players on the roster; their opponent had five international players. Of the 32 players on BYU’s roster this year, 22 are from Utah, 14 of them from Utah Valley within 20 miles of campus.
“Our goal is to recruit top members of the (Latter-day Saint) church, and our biggest pool of that would be in Utah,” she says. “The other thing is the growth of youth soccer and the various clubs and the experiences (the players) are having. We’ve been very successful with Utah kids. Why stray from that?”
Constructing a team is a tricky business at BYU, trying to juggle the coming and going of missionaries along with redshirts and “COVID redshirts.” Coaches recruit two years ahead, so when an athlete shows up in Rockwood’s office and says she’s going to leave the school to serve an 18-month mission there’s a scramble. This year’s team has eight returned missionaries, including two starters — Olivia Wade-Katoa and Haven Empey. Two years ago, five of six members of the recruiting class left to serve missions.
”That’s how we roll,” says Rockwood. “It’s tough, but we support it. You can’t replace them when they leave, but it seems to have worked out for us.”
And how. Between all the juggling of players, somehow the Cougars returned their entire starting lineup from last season (when they finished 14th in the final rankings). The Cougars are playing so well that Rockwell struggles to name her top players (“It’s hard to say — so many players are doing well.”). In the 3-1 win over UCLA, bench players scored all three of BYU’s goals.
The Cougars are anchored by midfielders/team captains Jamie Shepherd and Wade-Katoa. “They are very key for us,” says Rockwood. The back line is held by Laveni Vaka. Kendall Peterson, a senior defender, is tied for third in the nation in assists with seven.
“We are getting a tremendous impact from Kendall,” says Rockwood. Olivia Smith-Griffitts has scored two goals as an outside back. In all, the Cougars rank second in the country in scoring, averaging well over four goals per game.
“There are not many teams in the country that have the returning experience that we have,” says Rockwood.
After so many near misses in recent years — after reaching the Elite Eight in 2019 and the championship game in 2021 and the Sweet 16 during last year’s rebuilding season — Rockwood and the Cougars might be built to win the elusive national championship. Maybe that pursuit has kept Rockwood coming back.
“I always used to joke that I wouldn’t coach past 50 because it is such a grind,” she says, “but I’ll be turning 57 this month, so who knows.”