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Returned missionaries chasing hoop dreams on No. 1-ranked Salt Lake Community College squad

Returned missionaries chasing hoop dreams on No. 1-ranked Salt Lake Community College squad

TAYLORSVILLE, Utah — A collection of talented athletes and returned missionaries and their teammates on the Salt Lake Community College men’s basketball squad are not buying into the cliche “You win some, you lose some.” 

The Bruins are 28-0 this season and, following a win Saturday, Feb. 12, over in-state rival Snow College, remain the No. 1-ranked junior college team in the nation. Several Latter-day Saints — including Tanner Cuff, Jackson Last, Max Watson, Jaxson Pollard, Tyson Garff and Cade Brazier — play key roles in an 2021-2022 campaign that the Bruins hope is ultimately highlighted with a national title. 

The roster’s returned missionaries bring with them a prized mix of talent, teamwork and maturity, SLCC head coach Kyle Taylor told the Church News.

“First, they are all really good basketball players; their skill level is fantastic,” Taylor said. “And, thanks to their life experiences, they don’t get rattled if, say, we’re down by five points at halftime and not playing well. … Because of the things they have experienced in life, particularly while on missions, they bring a calming influence to our group.”

The Bruins boast a diverse roster that includes athletes from large U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago, and an international player from Nigeria. Meanwhile, several of the Latter-day Saint players hail from fairly small Utah towns.

No matter the differences — the mix obviously works.

The returned missionaries, added Taylor, “are humble and selfless. They are more focused on winning than on their individual stats.”

Freshman Jackson Last grew up in Hurricane, Utah, and served a mission in Texas before joining the Bruins. His time away from basketball to share the gospel was time well-spent. But the wing player is also thrilled to be back on the court and competing on the country’s top-ranked JUCO program.

“This year has been so much fun; not just winning, but also spending time off the court with the guys because we have so many high-character players on the team — including those who are Church members and those who are not.” 

Last hopes the Bruins’ ongoing success will offer him future basketball opportunities at a four-year college program.

Last’s friend and teammate Max Watson served a mission to Brazil before returning home to Utah to play college ball. A No. 1 national ranking makes for a magical season, he told the Church News. But the team’s focus remains on the next training session, the next game and the next bucket. 

“We come to practice each day asking what we can do to get better and grow,” said Watson. “I don’t think the ranking and the winning streak have really hit us because we still have business to take care of.”

Watson agrees that the Bruins’ corps of returned missionaries brings a measure of maturity to the young team. “We try to lead by example and always keep fighting. … We try to be consistent with what we believe in and how we react to things.”

Win 28 consecutive games and you can expect to be a season-defining target for every team you face, said returned missionary and Bruin forward Jaxon Pollard. “We get every team’s best shot whenever we play.”

A Utahn who served in the North Carolina Charlotte Mission, Pollard said his team’s blend of cultures, mutual respect and, yes, hoops talent is proving a potent blend for success.

“We all share the same focus,” he said. “We’re able to have a lot of team meetings by ourselves and figure things out if there is a problem. We have open communication.”

The Bruins have played 28 games. And, after each contest, they have exited the court with a win. All connected to the squad — including coach Taylor and the returned missionaries — now hope the Bruins’ final game will end with a final victory.

“Since the beginning of the season, our goals have been to have an undefeated season, win our conference — which we’ve already done, win the district tournament and then go to Hutchinson, Kansas, and win the national championship,” said Pollard.

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