Cougars ride wave of popularity in Provo to No. 5 national ranking.
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Provo • Two hours before kickoff, they begin trickling into the grounds of Brigham Young's South Stadium. Students and families stroll leisurely through ornate gates, down a short pathway and through the turnstiles. On the other side of the grandstand, tendrils of smoke rise from a grill.
It's BBQ Night, and it doesn't take too long for lines to form for the pulled pork, hamburgers and hot dogs. Youth soccer teams kick around a ball on the field. There is face painting and a movie after the game, too.
"It's become a sort of party, this event for people to come to, and not just for this amazing soccer team," said BYU promotions coordinator Weston Wride, the ringleader of all pregame and halftime activities.
Jennifer Rockwood never dreamed such a thing would be possible. When she took over as coach of the BYU women's soccer program in 1995, it was a club sport that had to beg or borrow to find a working electric scoreboard.
Now, all these years later, not only do the Cougars perennially field one of college soccer's most successful women's programs, but the team's home games have also become the place to be, as a record numbers of fans have discovered the fun in women's soccer.
"Every year, it gets better," Rockwood said.
Last season, 31,697 spectators attended BYU women's soccer matches, the largest total attendance of any Division I women's soccer program in the nation. The Cougars' average of 2,882 was second to Portland, also known for its rabid fan base.
This year, BYU is on track to top last year's mark. So far in 2012, an average of 3,298 fans have watched the No. 5-ranked Cougars. A stadium-record 4,922 spectators crammed into South Field to watch BYU beat then-No. 6 Penn State.
"It's amazing," Rockwood said. "We tell the girls they have to win and they have to play a fun style of soccer to make sure people come back and watch them play. It gives us so much energy and helps our team play so much better at home."
Think it doesn't make a difference playing before crowds that have approached 5,000 people?
"It's something you can feel. It gives us energy," said BYU senior defender Lindsi Lisonbee Cutshall, an All-America candidate from Park City. "We've always had a big turnout, but this year is something super special. It's louder than I ever remember it being."
Even South Field itself, surrounded on three sides by trees and tucked away between BYU's indoor football facility and the Smith Fieldhouse, has undergone a transformation. There are now temporary bleachers behind the east goal, right in front of a brand new state-of-the-art LED scoreboard, complete with visual graphics, replays and live action.
Off the field, Wride's crews hock T-shirts and other merchandise.
"I have to come up with more budget for shirts," he said. "It all began with coach Rockwood. She gets it. She understands marketing. She understands that her girls will be out there connecting with students, fans and kids. And now it has kind of brought on this momentum."
Last year, BYU had four of the top 10 Division I single-game crowds. But even as far back as 2006, the Cougars had the ability to draw crowds as large as 4,700.
The last two years have been different, though, in terms of building momentum. The last two home games, including a 0-0 tie against West Coast Conference foe Santa Clara, had a combined attendance of more than 7,000.
"I would just come to watch the team, but these guys," said Matt Duerden, pointing to his small children, who wouldn't normally sit through a whole soccer game if there wasn't all the other stuff.
"There's a lot going on."
While the South Stadium atmosphere helps the Cougars play better, there is another byproduct recruiting.
For a high school athlete who is used to playing in front of a handful of friends and parents, the program's popularity is a huge draw.
"Oh my gosh, it's so overwhelming," said BYU freshman and Bountiful native Paige Hunt. "It's completely different. I was a little nervous in the beginning, but once you get used to it and the energy, it's amazing."
Rockwood, who takes her team to Portland on Oct. 13, is anxious to see how BYU's atmosphere stacks up.
"It's phenomenal here," she said. "We haven't seen anything like it anywhere else. The Penn State game, the electricity was amazing.
"It's been built a little bit at a time. But it all adds up."
BYU's top ten soccer crowds
2012 • 4,922 vs. Penn State
2006 • 4,742 vs. Colorado
2011 • 4,633 vs. Miami
2011 • 4,437 vs. Utah
2011 • 4,265 vs. Cal State Fullerton
2012 • 4,103 vs. Cal Poly
2005 • 3,810 vs. California
2012 • 3,589 vs. Utah Valley
2012 • 3,553 vs. Santa Clara
2011 • 3,374 vs. Arizona