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PROVO — Sarah Chambers started her BYU women’s soccer career with a similar goal in mind after a standout high school career in Medford, Oregon: score goals and lead the offense.
After playing in all 21 games and notching a goal and two assists as a sophomore, she looked on her way to contributing to the offense as an upperclassman.
Then a conversation with head coach Jennifer Rockwood right before her junior season changed her mindset: Chambers was being moved to outside back, stepping into a defense that lost four players from goalkeeper up.
But the junior Oregon native has been up to the challenge, and she’s helped the BYU defense to four shutouts with 0.91 goals allowed on 8.9 shots per game.
“At first, I was up for it because I just wanted to be on the field,” said Chambers, who has started every game in 2014. “I was a little confused, because I had never played defense before. But everyone needs to play some defense on the field, so I kind of know that you just don’t let people score and that’s how defense works. That was my thought going in.”
Chambers wasn’t completely lost going into the move, either. Her sister Ashley was a four-year defender at Oregon State, and the siblings text after every game with tips, critiques and advice.
“She’s been giving me a lot of feedback and encouragement with how I’ve been playing,” Chambers said. “It’s kind of exciting; I was always a forward, she was the defender, and now we have more in common.”
The move hasn’t been without a few growing pains, but her teammates say the BYU back line is significantly improved in one key area: speed.
“I think that we’ve got a lot of speed,” said Annie Amos, the lone defensive returner from 2013. “Sarah is one of our fastest back there, (fellow newcomer Taylor Campbell-Isom) has some speed as well, and we’ve got a lot of speedy players. One of our strengths is that we know we are going to get to every ball first. That’s a huge advantage that we have.”
Bringing Chambers’ goal-scoring mentality into the defense isn’t anything new, Rockwood said; the Cougars have turned several offensive recruits into defensive standouts. But the junior outside back brings a unique ability to get forward and run at defenses from the wing to 2014.
“She’s just so quick, and a great 1-vs.-1 defender,” Rockwood said of Chambers. “She can cover a lot of area, and she likes to go forward. We’ve turned several attacking players into outside backs over the last five or six years; it’s not something new. A lot of teams do it so they can get attack out of the back.”
Chambers had another ally in helping her adapt to her new defensive instincts: her brain. The 5-foot-2 chemical engineering major turned down offers to play at academic bastions Harvard and Stony Brook to come to Provo, and she is a two-time WCC Commissioner's Honor Roll recipient in her first two years.
She's just so quick, and a great 1-vs.-1 defender. She can cover a lot of area, and she likes to go forward. We've turned several attacking players into outside backs over the last five or six years; it's not something new. A lot of teams do it so they can get attack out of the back.
–BYU head coach Jennifer Rockwood on new outside back Sarah Chambers
“I had parents who motivated me in my studies. They were very supportive of my soccer career, but at the same time they wanted me to know that getting a good education was very important,” said Chambers, then she laughed. “I developed really good study habits — and it’s also part genetics, I’m sure; my parents are both geniuses. I’m glad for that.”
There were plenty of growing pains as BYU took time to jell, especially at the back. The Cougars went on a three-match losing streak that included a 1-0 loss at rival Utah — with each loss by one goal — as they worked to develop chemistry through a difficult schedule.
But the kinks appear to have worked themselves out, leading to a five-match unbeaten streak as West Coast Conference play begins Friday at travel partner San Diego.
It’s a good time to get right, Rockwood said.
“We’ve played some good teams, found where we need to make improvements, and all of this in preparation for conference play,” Rockwood said. “We graduated a lot, Santa Clara graduated a lot, Portland lost a lot; those are the three top teams the last few years, and everyone got better. Pepperdine returned a lot of players, and now they’re one of the top teams in the country.
“I think it’s up for grabs.”