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PROVO — As if the BYU women’s soccer team needed more motivation (other than being overlooked by the United Soccer Coaches’ national poll in the preseason), this week’s opponent — in-state rival Utah — would certainly do that.
Then again, the No. 10 Cougars haven’t been lacking in motivation in recent weeks, and this week will be no different.
BYU hosts Utah in the 31st edition of the rivalry game Friday night at South Field (7 p.m. MDT, BYUtv), with the Cougars holding a 21-7-2 all-time record. BYU hasn’t dropped a game in the series since 2014 and are without a loss to the Utes in Provo since 2007.
OK, so it’s not the back-and-forth rivalry that other sports have experienced in the traditional set up between the two largest athletic programs in the state. But there’s something different when the Utes and Cougars get together — especially at South Field.
This game is special, and it’s proven to be even more special when BYU has one of those numbers before its initials, like 10.
"I think it just comes naturally with BYU and who we play for, especially against Utah," said BYU forward Elise Flake, who will face former club teammate Carly Nelson in goal. "Being ranked right now is incredible, and we’re honored. But we try not to think about it too much, take it game by game. Every single game is just as important as the others. We get everybody’s best game, and I think that pushes us even more to focus on the little details — no matter who we are playing."
There are 19 players on BYU’s roster from Utah (the Utes have 16). That’s 19 chances for the Cougars to face former friends and teammates, like they will when BYU's Mikayla Colohan faces Utah’s Ireland Dunn (Davis) or Ella Ballstaedt will when facing the entire Utah backline — her teammates for two years before transferring prior to the 2018 season.
"They grow up together, hearing BYU and Utah soccer since youth," BYU coach Jennifer Rockwood said. "A lot of them were recruited by Utah, and they have friends over there — any time you play against a good friend, you have that much more to prove."
The Cougars will enter the game with confidence, especially after a road sweep through the Southeastern Conference at Alabama and Mississippi State to help vault them from just outside the Top 25 to No. 14 and. A 7-0 shutout of in-state foe Southern Utah finally to the program’s current No. 10 ranking.
They’ll also face the next challenge with confidence, though, because of the attacking play of Colohan, Flake and fellow forward Cameron Tucker and the confidence of a strong season on the semipro circuit with Utah Royals FC. The trio has been deadly in the attacking third, with Flake notching a team-high three goals and Colohan adding two more — a pair of game-winners, no less.
But it’s not just those three, Flake insists. BYU’s 4-4-2 formation pushes several players up the field and into the attack, notably outside backs Rachel Lyman and Josie Guinn, in an always evolving, constantly shifting set that navigates from offense to defense around central midfielder (and true freshman) Jamie Shepherd.
"It's been great, with me and Cam up top to connect with Kayla," Flake said. "She finds great spots, plays great balls to us, and we find each other. We’re all on the same page right now, and it’s clicking."
It’s a team effort, but it also takes talent to finish the final touch and that’s what Flake brings to the West Coast Conference favorite Cougars.
"When you get Elise facing goal at speed, she’s tough to stop," said Rockwood, comparing her senior team captain to former BYU star Ashley Hatch, who now plays for the NWSL’s Washington Spirit. "She can score goals. I think she accepted that she needs to go out and score goals, and that’s what she does. If we can find her the ball, she’s got confidence to put it away."