PROVO — It's often said in the sports world that defense wins championships, and if that's the case, BYU has to love the chances of the women's soccer team. The defense has led the way for the Elite Eight-bound Cougars, who take on North Carolina tonight on BYU's south field.
Since giving up two goals in overtime to UC Irvine the first game of the year, the Cougar defense has been downright stingy. No team has scored more than a single goal against the BYU backline since that opener, and 12 of 23 opponents never found the back of the net.
Leading the way for the team's backline, and for the team overall, is senior standout Lindsi Lisonbee Cutshall. The 5-foot-10, four-year starter has developed into one of the premier defenders nationally and the unquestioned leader of this year's team.
"She's the best defender I've ever played with or played against," appraised senior Carlee Payne Holmoe. "She is so strong and so physical. She's so hard to get past, so our backline is so lucky to have her back there. She just doesn't get beat, and if someone else does get beat, she's there to cover."
On the field Cutshall provides the type of commanding presence and seemingly effortless movement that define the top players in any sport. It's the type of presence and play that lifts her teammates and inspires them to play their best.
"I think she brings a confidence even if she doesn't touch the ball," noted coach Jennifer Rockwood. "Her teammates and players around her have a confidence just knowing that she's capable of running anybody down, blocking shots, winning head balls, and it really brings the level of play of everyone around her up."
Rockwood noticed this ability when Cutshall was merely 14 years of age while playing for select soccer teams and for Park City High. Since arriving at BYU, the two-time All-American has put in the work necessary to realize the tremendous ability recognized early on.
That effort and work ethic only increased after a disappointing 2011 season that saw the highly talented Cougars left out of the NCAA tournament. Players won't soon forget watching the tournament selection show and the heartbreak of being left completely out.
The players didn't pout, but filed the disappointment away and determined to work harder than ever to make sure it didn't happen again.
"I think I took last year as motivation to come out and beat the odds," Cutshall said. "This year we made it a goal and a personal goal for me to make sure we won a conference championship and that we can make it as far as we (have). (Reaching the) Elite Eight is an amazing way to end and I hope to go on to the Final Four."
The team exceeded everyone's expectations and secured not only a conference championship, but a no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
It was a collective effort led not only by Cutshall, but by a group of standout seniors who have contributed heavily to the team's success the last four seasons.
"It's a fantastic senior class," Rockwood said. "They came in together as freshmen and made a huge impact on our program as freshmen. We knew this was a great group of girls who would carry us through and in their senior years they've picked it up more."
Seniors such as Jessica Ringwood, Dana Oldroyd Cusick, Cami Jensen along with Cutshall and Holmoe have taken the lead and the team has benefited greatly by their leadership and play.
"I've loved playing with each and every one of them from freshman year until now," Cutshall said. "They're all amazing people and they all contribute something different."
Each player will need to provide top contributions Friday night against North Carolina. The Tar Heel program has been the premiere soccer program in the country and always brings a top level of talent to the table, including former Deseret News Ms. Soccer and U-20 Women's National team member Kealia Ohai, who prepped at Alta.
"I'm super excited," Cutshall said about the matchup. "In my four years I've never been given the opportunity to play them. They're a great team and I think with our home field advantage and the home crowd we draw that it will be a real exciting environment."
Regardless of what happens Friday night, Cutshall is grateful for her experience at BYU.
"It's sad to think it's coming to an end, but I couldn't be more grateful for the opportunity to play here," Cutshall said. "It's been an amazing experience and I've never played with teammates that are (this) amazing and that have such a desire to play this game. I've had amazing coaches that have taught me both on and off the field and as a person I've developed both on and off the field and I give the credit to my teammates and coaches."
Friday's game will be broadcast live on BYUtv.
BYU vs. North Carolina
Friday, 6 p.m.
BYU, South Field
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company