The state of Utah takes its women’s college soccer very seriously. One need only know that the state produces more D1 women’s soccer players per capita than any other to realize what the sport means to so many in the state. One need only listen to Utah Utes head coach Rich Manning claim the rivalry is “more than a game, it’s an event”. That passion gets a chance to bubble over once a season when Red meets Blue in Provo and Salt Lake City. Already an intense rivalry in other collegiate sports, the annual showdown between Utah and BYU has become one of women’s college soccer’s most passionate battles.
It’s a battle that Manning classifies as, “one of the most electric rivalries in the country in women’s soccer,” one that captures the imagination of two cities, two campuses, and one state for one memorable day of the year. It’s a rivalry that’s drawn so much attention in Salt Lake City over the years that Manning notes that they “had to turn away about five hundred people,” the last time the Cougars visited in 2014. It’s a rivalry that sells itself and puts the passion of two soccer mad fanbases on center stage in another likely memorable showdown on Monday afternoon.
As has been the case for most of these meetings, the side from Salt Lake City comes into Monday’s match as the underdog. In this case, a heavy underdog, playing a BYU side that has College Cup dreams and that topped defending national champion Penn State on the road a week ago. But the Cougars have reason to be wary of playing this Utah team at this venue. BYU has come into Salt Lake City two times before, only to fall victim to inspired Utah sides.
It’s been a whirlwind calendar year for Utah head coach Rich Manning’s side. The Utes completed a picturesque trip abroad to Europe in the offseason that Manning noted had “huge impact” in adding value to the program as a whole for players both current and past. In addition to matches against European sides to continue growth of the players on the field, Manning also was quick to mention the other cultural experiences the trip provided to help with the overall bonding process as a program.
Most recently, Utah were one of the Pac-12 sides to entertain Chinese university side Beijing Normal in an in-season friendly, which afforded them an opportunity to try some new things out while avoiding the pressure of needing to get a result. When the games have counted though, Utah has looked a formidable side, winning three of four matches heading into Monday’s derby.
The cure to what’s ailed Utah in the past few seasons has been pretty simple: they’re actually scoring goals. The Utes have netted ten in four matches to this point, and while nobody will confuse Utah’s non-conference schedule with a true murderer’s row, they’ve still been remarkably potent in front of goal, save for a humbling defeat against Big Ten title contenders Minnesota. Manning indicated a more attack minded focus in training has helped, along with the simplicity of having finished chances at a more efficient rate as compared to previous seasons, claiming the club had “chances last year that we just didn’t put away”.
It’s been more than just new personnel and staying healthy to this point though. Manning made an inspired decision to move sophomore Hailey Skolmoski, a player the coach notes as “just having that scorer’s mentality,” into the frontline, and the result has been four goals for Utah in the opening weeks of the season en route to three wins. Skolmoski was injured midway through the season in 2015, but she had previously taken up station on the backline, having been recruited as a full-back but having played centrally for the Utes.
Hailey Skolmoski has been a versatile star for the Utes. (Photo Courtesy: Utes Athletics)
Injuries necessitated Skolmoski playing defensively last year, with Manning noting that it was a situation of “all capable bodies need to play in the back”. But being used as a last-ditch forward late in games the club were chasing last year opened up a window to a more permanent move this season. Manning described getting Skolmoski in the attack last weekend as “electric for the team,” as the move allowed others to play in a more natural position, making the attack as a whole worlds more dangerous
It wasn’t just about increasing offensive output coming into 2016 though, as Utah also needed to replace Lindsey Luke in goal. The uber-athletic Luke never really got her due as a top-level keeper thanks to Utah’s lower profile, but her departure after starting in Salt Lake City for four seasons left a massive gap for Manning to fill coming into the new year.
The Utes haven’t handed the job full-time to any of their keepers, with Manning taking it as a “day-to-day” situation, as it figures to be a learning process for July Mathias, who started the club’s early games before giving way to Carly Nelson. Manning spoke highly of Mathias’ ability on 1v1 opportunities, as well as praising her overall skill. He also noted that Nelson was already “athletically, a top-notch goalkeeper at this level,” whose confidence in net was a massive boost for the Utes.
Manning acknowledged the notion of growing pains with the duo, which is natural considering their lack of starting experience, but was also optimistic about the growth of both into starting calibre keepers at this level.
Odds are, whichever keeper gets the nod on Monday afternoon will be busy. No visiting team has won in this rivalry in half a decade, a string that certainly looks to be in danger come Labor Day, as BYU comes into this one with a ton of momentum having topped Penn State last weekend away from the comforts of Provo. The Utes have almost always raised their game when defending their own turf in this rivalry though, something that will be made easier with an expected sell-out crowd for the holiday showdown.
And though bragging rights are certainly on the line, Utah may enter Monday with the burden of expectation off of their shoulders. BYU are touted as a potential contender to reach the final weekend of the season and need this one badly to keep up their quest for a top national seed in the NCAA Tournament. Few likely projected the Utes to even make the NCAA Tournament, and they’ll probably embrace Monday as an opportunity for a fearless display as the underdog. If the Utes are able to show the form they have for much of the first few weeks of the season, that underdog could pack a lot of bite.
Utah and BYU play in Salt Lake City on Monday, September 5 at 5:30 PM EST on the Pac-12 Network.
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