Like every other team, BYU began the soccer season with an unblemished record.
Three months later, as the NCAA tournament begins, the Cougars are unlike any other group in the country. At 18-0-1, they are the only team without a loss.
Recognition has been slow to come. Unranked in the preseason and mostly an afterthought in the week-to-week race for the top spot in the polls, a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament at least affords them the potential of an extended stay at home through the Sweet 16. But if doubt lingers in some quarters as to how close the Cougars really are to making it to their first College Cup, they find the confidence to keep winning in how close they have grown to each other.
"I mean, No. 1, that would be cool, but it's kind of nice flying under the radar," senior forward Elise Flake said. "We can just prove everybody wrong and show them what BYU soccer is really about. It puts more pressure on us -- good pressure that we want -- just to show everybody what we can accomplish, even though some people might not believe we can. It's kind of cool. It's kind of fun."
"We don't always get the players that are in the youth national system or have the big names, as far as recruiting goes. But we always have players who are exceptional athletes, exceptional soccer players who train hard and want to learn and have fun doing it." BYU coach Jennifer Rockwood
BYU isn't some newcomer to the scene. The Cougars were a No. 1 seed in the 2012 NCAA tournament, when they were a goal-line clearance away from beating eventual champion North Carolina and advancing to the College Cup. Coach Jennifer Rockwood has just two losing seasons on a resume that spans 25 years at the school. One of those seasons came in 2017, but the Cougars rebounded to make the NCAA tournament for the 19th time last fall.
Sent on the road in the first round, they took a first-half lead at TCU but ultimately lost 2-1.
"It was definitely one of those physical, hard-fought games that kind of tested more than just the soccer ability and the teams in general," midfielder Mikayla Colohan said diplomatically. "It showed what it's going to be like to play in the tournament and the things we need to be ready for."
Now a junior, Colohan joins Flake as BYU's most proven assets. The duo combined for 32 goals in 19 regular-season games, their output alone more than a couple of hundred Division I teams. That doesn't count the 14 goals in 12 games they scored while playing for the Utah Royals FC Reserves this summer. But they and much of BYU's starting lineup were already working on this season well before practice officially began in August.
Late last spring, the NWSL's Utah Royals reached out to Rockwood. Former U.S. international Amy LePeilbet was taking charge of a new Royals-affiliated amateur team in the WPSL, and they were looking for players.
Plenty of college players spend their summers in the WPSL. Some teams in that league even field the maximum five players from the same college team, as the Royals FC Reserves did. But few opportunities involve working with a former Olympic and World Cup veteran in a training environment connected to a women's pro team that shares resources with an MLS team.
"Sometimes those summer teams get a bad reputation, just with how other players have seen them go and that they're not very high-level training," Colohan said. "It was cool because [LePeilbet] comes from the Royals and her personal resume is amazing, so it was really insightful to see what she wanted us to do and the things she had to offer."
Colohan, Flake, Alyssa Jefferson, Danika Serassio and Cameron Tucker spent the summer training and playing together. That's almost half of BYU's starting lineup this season. The payoff is plain to see for someone like Tucker, who went from a BYU sub to the leading scorer for the Royals Reserves and a key third element of the attack alongside Colohan and Flake.
"The biggest thing it provided [all five] was just playing together more, especially me and Cam and Kayla because we're offensive players and played a lot more together," Flake said. "Just getting more game-time experience helps us get to know how each other plays even more -- more than free play or other things we could be doing. That was huge for us, trying new formations, trying to figure out different problems on the field together with us three."
By the time last season ended so abruptly, all the work to get back to the tournament erased by two TCU goals in about five minutes, Colohan didn't recall so much as touching a soccer ball until almost Christmas. She needed the space, physically and mentally.
She did not, on the other hand, seek space from her teammates. Even in those weeks when there weren't team activities, Colohan recalled most players still gathering for the kinds of occasions any friends gather for during college -- getting dinner, ice cream, just hanging out at a house.
"Every successful team that I've been a part of has had that chemistry on and off the field," Colohan said. "So that's something that I've always been a big advocate of, trying to get the girls to be friends. Not just in the practice or game setting, but to enjoy each other and spend time with each other. If you're friends with someone off the field, you communicate, you respect and you just have much more effectiveness on the field."
It was the players, sans coaches, who gathered shortly before the Christmas break to talk about what came next and to set goals for the year ahead.
Flake contended those bonds weren't as strong during her first couple of years in Provo and that strengthening them was as much a part of the offseason plan as skill work or fitness.
"That's one thing I think this year has been different than previous years, just because we all are such good friends on and off the field," Flake said.
Chemistry is intangible, but it isn't optional for BYU as one of a handful of programs consistently staving off the creep of power conferences with more resources. The West Coast Conference that BYU joined in 2011 used to be women's soccer royalty, Portland and Santa Clara at least the equal of any program this side of North Carolina. That's no longer the case.
BYU continues to thrive by playing to its strengths. Its ties to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints give it a natural recruiting base that is especially strong in Utah. But just as much, it succeeds when it is more than the sum of its parts -- because someone else will always have more highly touted parts.
"Building team culture is something you do have control over," Rockwood said. "We don't always get the players that are in the youth national system or have the big names, as far as recruiting goes, but we always have players who are exceptional athletes, exceptional soccer players who train hard and want to learn and have fun doing it."
Doing it through the winter, spring, summer and now fall.
The Royals Reserves went 12-2-1 in all competition and won their division. In winning the WCC and scoring more goals than any team except potential quarterfinal opponent Stanford, BYU has done even better in the loss column.
That takes a certain amount of talent as a starting point. But it also takes a group of players who not only understand how to play together but want to be together.
"I've been fortunate to coach some amazing teams, and we've had a ton of success and great student-athletes," Rockwood said. "But I think everyone feels this is a really special team."
Maybe the best team in the country. It will be difficult to prove otherwise if they keep winning.