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The BYU women’s soccer team has a storied history. Just 22 months ago, the Cougars played in the 2021 NCAA finals, taking the championship game to penalty kicks before losing a heartbreaker.

They finished both No. 2 in the tournament and second in the season’s final poll.

Now, for the first time in program history, BYU soccer is ranked No. 1, a ranking fueled in part by a large group of returned missionaries and other players openly grateful to play for a school sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

For example: “I wanted the opportunity to not only represent myself, my team and my school at the highest level but also my Savior, Jesus Christ,” says Zoe Jacobs, a senior defender from Kaysville, Utah, on the team’s website.

When BYU, then ranked No. 7, beat the previous No. 1 team, UCLA, on Aug. 31, the goalkeeper was Savanna (Empey) Mason, who served a mission in New Zealand.

One of the three goals was assisted by Olivia Wade-Katoa, who was a Latter-day Saint missionary in Houston, Texas.

Latter-day Saint returned missionary Olivia Wade-Katoa reacts during BYU’s victory over No. 1 UCLA on Aug. 31. BYU now is No. 1.
Latter-day Saint returned missionary Olivia Wade-Katoa reacts during BYU’s victory over No. 1 UCLA on Aug. 31. BYU took over the top spot in the rankings after the game for the first time in program history. | Brigham Young University

BYU is now 6-0. The Cougars began the year ranked 13th before moving up in the polls, first to 11th and then seventh. After they beat UCLA, they earned all eight first-place votes in the next poll and took over the top spot.

Who are the returned missionaries playing for the No. 1-ranked BYU women’s soccer team?

Nearly a third — 10 — of first-ranked BYU’s 32 players have served missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Here’s the list of those who have been missionaries (and the language they spoke on their missions):

  • Lynette Hernaez (goalie): Salt Lake City South, Utah (English).
  • Savanna Mason (goalie): New Zealand, Hamilton Mission (English). Mason is the daughter of former BYU football player and coach Mike Empey, and her sister Haven is one of her backups.
  • Olivia Wade-Katoa (midfielder): Texas, Houston Mission (Spanish). Wade-Katoa’s husband, Tayler, played football for USC. Her father Eric played basketball for Ricks College and her brother Jesse played basketball at Gonzaga and BYU.
  • Lytiana Akinaka (forward/midfielder): Colorado, Denver North Mission (English and Spanish).
  • Josie Shepherd (midfielder): New Hampshire, Manchester Mission (English). Josie’s sister Jamie Shepherd is a teammate with BYU and their sister Jenna plays for Utah Valley University.
  • Caroline Stringfellow (midfielder/forward): Brazil, São Paulo South Mission (Portuguese).
  • Kelsey Hoopes (goalie): Texas, McAllen Mission (Spanish).
  • Jacey Wood (midfielder/forward): Texas, Lubbock Mission (Spanish).
  • Addie Gardner (forward): Cape Verde, Praia Mission (Portuguese).
  • Haven Empey (goalie): Washington, Seattle Mission (English).

Two other Cougars are serving missions right now:

  • Abbie Kotter: Portugal, Lisbon Mission (Portuguese)
  • Paola Garcia: Ecuador, Guayaquil West Mission (Spanish)

The Cougars next play future Big 12 rival Utah on Saturday at Ute Field in Salt Lake City at 7 p.m. The game will be broadcast on Pac-12 Plus.

Then No. 1 BYU plays No. 17 TCU at home on Sept. 14 in a Big 12 game on ESPNU at South Field in Provo at 7 p.m.

What have other soccer players said about BYU and faith?

  • Halle Dixon, midfielder from Carlsbad, California: “BYU aligns with all of my goals as a person, player and daughter of God.”
  • Tara Warner, midfielder from Springville, Utah: “BYU has a great soccer program, and I get to be close to home. I also love representing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
  • Ella Rustand, defender from Tucson, Arizona: “The main reason I decided to come to BYU is because of how important my faith is to me. Being able to share my faith openly and expand my religious knowledge has been such a great experience.”

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Behind the Scenes

Latter-day Saint returned missionary Olivia Wade-Katoa reacts during BYU’s victory over No. 1 UCLA on Aug. 31. BYU is now No. 1.
Latter-day Saint returned missionary Olivia Wade-Katoa reacts during BYU’s victory over No. 1 UCLA on Aug. 31. BYU took over the top spot in the rankings after the game for the first time in program history. | Brigham Young University
No. 1 BYU’s starting goalkeeper, Savanna Mason, signs autographs after a game this season. Undefeated BYU is ranked No. 1.
No. 1 BYU’s starting goalkeeper, Savanna Mason, signs autographs after a game this season. Undefeated BYU is ranked No. 1 for the first time in program history, fueled in part by returned Latter-day Saint missionaries like Mason. | Rebeca Fuentes/BYU