Missions finding favor in WAC basketball

Returned missionaries are playing increasingly significant roles in the basketball programs of Western Athletic Conference-affiliated universities.

At the recent WAC basketball tournament in Salt Lake City's sparkling new Delta Center, home of the Utah Jazz, five of the 10 participating teams listed LDS returned missionaries on their rosters. Two of the five players selected to the all-tournament team were returned missionaries: Josh Grant of the University of Utah, a two-time WAC Most Valuable Player; and Jared Miller of BYU.The growing impact of returned missionary hoopsters in the conference is drawing attention from coaches.

"Coaches understand the value of what a mission does for a young man, and they accept the fact that this is a real commitment to leave for two years to do church work," explained Chris Hill, Utah athletic director who is not an LDS Church member. "Coaches realize it is a maturing process, and they see it as something that's a definite positive."

Utah has four returned missionaries playing this year. Besides Grant, who served a mission in England, the others are Larry Cain (Florida), Mark Rydalch (Texas) and Jeff Connolly (Japan).

BYU director of athletics Glen Tuckett noted: "Now a basketball player who goes on a mission interrupts his career rather than terminating it. In the past, it was felt that a young man who went on a mission would lose his legs, lose his touch and lose his desire. Over the years at BYU we have proved that philosophy to be wrong. For many years, returned missionaries participated in track and field, and in baseball. Pretty soon, the attitude caught on, and we found that young returned missionaries could do it in football and basketball, too. I've always said that if a young man could play before he went on a mission he could play when he got back."

Nine returned missionaries are on BYU's team this year, which tied with Utah for the WAC championship. Both teams went to the NCAA tournament, where both the Cougars and Utes made it to the second round before losing.

The BYU returned missionaries and their states or countries of service include: David Astle (Spain), Kurt Christensen (France), Ryan Cuff (Argentina), Mark Durrant (Kentucky), John Fish (Scotland), Russell Larson (Argentina), Jared Miller (Chile), Randy Reid (New Jersey), and Gary Trost (Pennsylvania).

This is a marked contrast to 10 years ago, when BYU had only two returned missionaries on its basketball squad.

Asked whether it was more difficult or easier to coach returned missionaries, BYU coach Roger Reid replied: "Coaching is coaching. I don't know whether they are tougher or easier to coach. One thing I can say is that these young men work hard, they want to do their best, and they are goal oriented. It's really an honor to coach them.

"As everyone knows, at BYU we encourage young men to go on missions. When they return, we're proud of them and the way they represent our university. We never have any problems with them in the classroom. These young men end up in careers that make them successful contributors to society."

For the first time, this year the Air Force Academy had a returned missionary on its team. Bryce Morgan from Nephi, Utah, was permitted to interrupt his academy training while he served two years in Argentina. Reggie Minton, Air Force coach, explained that under new regulations the Air Force allows young men to serve missions without jeopardizing their military standing.

A team leader for the University of Hawaii is personable Jarinn Akana, who served a mission in Chile. Akana, whose home is on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, played at BYU-Hawaii before his mission. With three years of eligibility left when he returned, he transferred to UH.

Fresno State, the newest member of the WAC, has two returned missionaries on its team: Brian Santiago from Provo, Utah, who served in the Dominican Republic; and Chris Koford of Ogden, Utah, whose mission was in England. Alex Fisher of Salt Lake City, also a team member, is leaving soon for a mission.

Bob Woodward, director of sports and play-by-play announcer for KMJ Radio in Fresno, was loud in his praise for the LDS missionaries while handling broadcast duties at the WAC tournament.

"Mormon missionaries on the Fresno team are good people, good competitors, outstanding young men who are exemplary in their actions when they're not on the court," he said.

Woodward noted the LDS population is growing rapidly in the Fresno area, and said the school is anxious to have more returned missionaries in its athletic programs.

"My mission helped me tremendously in basketball," said Utah's Cain. "I'm older than most of the players, and my maturity has helped me out in a lot of situations. On my mission, I learned and acquired a work ethic, and that same ethic has helped me in my program to become a better basketball player. I've always wanted to be a college player and to become a doctor. I'm excited to be accepted at the University of Utah Medical School. I certainly recommend a mission for anyone. My testimony grew during my mission, and I learned Spanish and can still speak it pretty well. Even though I've been home more than two years, I can still give the discussions in Spanish."

BYU's all-conference Gary Trost also is appreciative for what a mission did for him on and off the court:

"A mission was a good experience for me. It helped me to mature and develop mentally. It certainly taught me things that helped me become a better basketball player. I'd do it again without question, and I'd recommend that every young man who hopes to play college basketball has a mission in his program."

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