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PROVO, Utah -- In an NCAA womens soccer tournament that lacks a prohibitive favorite, BYU would hardly make an unlikely national champion. The Cougars are 16-2-1 entering a first-round game at home and have one of the nations leading goal scorers in recent United States national team call-up Ashley Hatch. The senior is the tip of the spear for an offense that ranks third in the nation in goals per game.It would be a good story if BYU, a No. 4 seed, wins its first national title. It just wouldnt be a shock for the ages.The unlikely story is that this particular program finds itself in such a position in the first place.This is a soccer program that logic indicates should exist on the margins nationally.It should be there according to conference affiliation -- it resides in the once mighty but increasingly mid-major West Coast Conference. It should be there by dint of its own history, which is barely two decades old in a state that was similarly slow to warm to womens soccer. And its religious makeup suggests the same: The Mormon faith with which BYU is synonymous comprises less than 2 percent of the U.S. population -- but the entirety of the soccer team.None of it adds up to a championship contender this season, let alone a fixture among the sports upper crust. But BYU is both. At a time when the struggles of former national champions Santa Clara and Portland underscore how difficult it is for programs beyond major conferences to thrive, BYU keeps getting better, achieving a 80-17-9 record over the past five seasons and earning seeds among the top 16 teams in the NCAA tournament twice in that span. BYU opens its title pursuit Friday (ESPN3, 9 ET) against UNLV.We call it the bubble here, BYU coach Jennifer Rockwood said. We like to be in our safe bubble sometimes.Who knows how much of it would have happened, or at least how quickly it would have happened, if Rockwood had been just a little better at basketball. Although she was born in a hospital less than a mile from the sideline on which she now coaches, Rockwood grew up in Oregon. She wanted to play basketball at BYU. Instead, after playing that sport for a year at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho), she transferred to BYU and settled for playing on the club soccer team that was then the sports only presence at the school.I think my seventh-grade team could have beat this college team, Rockwood recalled thinking. So it was interesting. But I made most of my really good friends in college on the team.She shifted from player to coach upon graduation. There was speculation BYU might soon make soccer a varsity sport, and she tried to raise the level of play accordingly. Yet the team was fighting for practice space on campus and piling into vans and driving through the night to tournaments in California, dependent on families for a place to sleep. Her compensation was about $500.I had a girl on the team who taught an aerobics class at BYU who made quite a bit more money than me, Rockwood said.Again, this is not ancient history. This unfolded during the first half of the 1990s. At about the same time, North Carolina broke into double digits for NCAA titles in womens soccer. And it was more than a decade after Jim McMahon and Steve Young brought BYU national attention on the football field. But when the school finally added womens soccer as a varsity sport in time for the 1995 season, it made an important corresponding decision. Rather than hire someone with experience coaching Division I soccer, it hired Rockwood -- someone who understood the school.BYUs choice to eschew Sunday competition isnt the only way the team differs from other schools, but the decision is instructive in the ways it shapes a soccer program. The scheduling element alone means that BYU cant participate in most early-season tournaments, which typically involve four schools that play games Friday and Sunday. These events are useful for strengthening RPI resumes, a necessity for programs from smaller conferences with national aspirations. Instead, Rockwood needs an athletic department willing to commit the resources to make separate one-game trips to Penn State and Ohio State little more than two weeks apart, as BYU did this season.The choice also changes how the program recruits.A gifted attacking player who has scored 18 goals this season and whose knee injury a year ago may have been all that stood between BYU and another national seed, Hatch arrived in Provo without the sort of club and youth accolades that usually accompany players of her ability. That was at least in part because she didnt play in all the high-profile showcase settings growing up in Arizona.My faith is something that is really important to me, Hatch said. So when it came to playing at those higher levels, I knew I just had to work harder to get recognized for colleges -- or go to camps and work extra hard at camps because those were my only opportunities to be seen because lots of championship games were played on Sundays, and I wouldnt be attending.Michele Vasconcelos, a fifth-year senior and the WCC player of the year who enters the NCAA tournament with 14 goals and 12 assists, sometimes played on Sundays growing up in the Salt Lake City area. For her, while uncomfortable, the compromise ensured she could compete at a high enough level to continue playing in college. BYU was never in danger of losing the states high school player of the year to a larger program -- she still has a childhood journal with entries about how much she wanted to play for the Cougars -- but her faith shaped at least some of the schools appeal.It definitely played a huge role, Vasconcelos said. I loved the aspect of not being able to play on Sundays.When BYU first reached an NCAA quarterfinal in 2003, the catalyst was All-American and current assistant coach Aleisha Rose. The national high school player of the year, Rose played for the U.S. national team while in college. She stopped playing for the national team in part because of the necessity to compete on Sundays.While not as spectacular as the views of the mountains that abut Provo, the facilities at BYU are attractive. The practice field is a block away from the building that contains the team facilities and the glitzier Student Athlete Academic Center. South Field, where the team plays its games, is perfectly sized to make what rank as some of the largest crowds in the country sound that much louder. But there is little that would turn heads, certainly not amid the splendor of new facilities at schools like Oregon or across the SEC. What sells BYU is the very uniqueness that could limit it.I can go to big [youth] tournaments now and there are just not as many [Latter-day Saint] or Mormon kids playing because now they have to make those Sunday decisions at 10 years old or 11 years old because of the youth system being so competitive, Rockwood said. But the Utah kids, there are so many people who would prefer not to play on Sundays that the club system here schedules around Sundays. So kids are still developing at a high level without having to play on Sundays. Its changed our recruiting and our pool over these last five years.Weve always relied on a lot of Utah kids over the years, but probably more so now than even in the past.The transformation of a barren recruiting ground into something fertile enough to provide for the program is also an integral piece of the puzzle, with BYUs success likely both cause and effect in that process. The governing body for Utah high school athletics didnt sanction girls soccer until 1989, and then only after a lawsuit against certain school districts forced its hand. The prep and club structure in the state was well established by the time Vasconcelos came along, but she can recall her sister, more than a decade older, talking about a different era when opportunities were scarcer and competition weaker unless girls played on boys teams.At the college level, there are now six NCAA Division I programs in the state, with more than 100 in-state athletes on their rosters. There were no Division I programs in the state as recently as 1994. BYU is by far the most successful, with more NCAA tournament appearances than the other five combined.I feel like its every Utah girls dream to go to BYU [to play soccer], Vasconcelos said.That may be hyperbole, especially considering the University of Utah is also in the NCAA tournament and thriving after the schools move to the ultra-competitive Pac-12. Or that nearly half of the state, unlike 98 percent of the BYU student body, isnt Mormon.Yet the proof is in the results. And enough people share that dream to make it anything but fantasy to think BYU could win it all.This group wants to do something that BYU soccer has never done, Rockwood said. And thats potentially get to the final four and see what happens. Jacksonville Jaguars Jerseys For Sale .Y. -- Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone has drawn on his Syracuse connections once again by hiring Rob Moore to take over as receivers coach. Logan Cooke Jersey . 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