U soccer heads to Provo for biggest game of season

By and

The No. 17 U soccer team (14-2, 5-0) has had an eye on Saturday’s game against BYU (12-4-2, 4-1) all season long. It seemed inevitable that the conference championship would be on the line in this game-and sure enough, it is. The game will be played at Provo’s South Stadium at 7 p.m.

Although the Utes have already secured a share of the MWC title, a loss tomorrow would mean the other share would go to BYU. That is not an attractive option to the Utes, who could earn their first outright conference title in the team’s nine-year history with a victory.

On the other hand, BYU has won all four MWC regular season titles and all four MWC tournament championships. This gives plenty of incentive to both teams, since Utah would love to knock off its biggest rival, and BYU wants its streak to continue.

“BYU has won the league every year since the conference began four years ago,” coach Rich Manning said. “So I think BYU’s motivation and confidence level we be at its highest.”

As well it should be. BYU is ranked No. 16 in the Soccer America Magazine poll (Utah is No. 14 in that poll), and they feature a potent attack that has scored 41 goals on the year and leads the MWC in every offensive category.

Senior midfielder Aleisha Rose is tied with Utah’s Amber Brower for the most points in the MWC. She is also the league’s leading passer with nine assists.

“Aleisha Rose might be the best player in the country,” Manning said.

That is high praise coming from a man as well-versed in women’s college soccer as Manning.

The Cougars also have a solid defense, allowing less than a goal per game. Goalkeeper Ashley Smith has allowed nine goals in 13 games and has four shutouts.

Manning believes that BYU is as good as Florida and Texas A&M, Utah’s toughest opponents of the season, and can be “one of the best teams in the country when they’re clicking.”

This might sound intimidating, but Manning and the Utes are anything but intimidated. Just ask senior defender Jen Williams.

“They’re in trouble,” she said. “Our team is ready, we’re excited and we know we deserve it so much more than they do.”

In fact, after last season’s tournament victory over BYU, Williams thinks the Cougars are the ones on the run.

“We beat them in the spring down in a Vegas tournament, and then BYU hosted a spring tournament, but they didn’t schedule us. I think they were scared of us,” she said.

These comments portray an attitude that Manning hoped his team would have heading into tomorrow’s game.

“One of the things that I would really like for our team to display in the big game is that we’re confident and composed and we’re not overwhelmed by the occasion,” Manning said.

Both teams have young players that either start or play quality minutes, so nervousness might find its way into the game early. But both teams also have strong veteran leadership and a good reason to play hard, so any nerves will probably be pushed aside unless a tense late-game situation recalls them.

Since both teams are so evenly matched in every aspect of the game, it could come down to who wants it more. However, both teams have equal incentives for victory.

BYU has to win to extend its streak of conference championships to five. It is also the last home game for the seniors, so players like Rose will probably step up their game.

Utah looks to win its first outright conference championship and beat BYU for only the second time in 14 tries.

The winner of the game will also get a first-round bye in the conference tournament and will have a better chance of hosting first-round games in the NCAA tournament.

When two evenly-matched teams are at odds, slight advantages are magnified. The Utes possess such an advantage in assistant coach Laurel Simpson-Roderick.

Roderick played four seasons at BYU and started all four as a defender. She also earned all-conference honors three years in a row while familiarizing herself with BYU’s system of play.

However, she brings up a good point regarding preparations for BYU.

“It’s usually pretty easy to make adjustments for BYU because they’re right there and we can watch them anytime we want,” she said.

Advantage or not, Roderick is 1-1 as a coach against BYU, and along with the rest of the coaching staff, she will have the team ready to play.

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