Decades from now, long after Sam Merrill’s jump shot and vertical leap have left him, the Latter-day Saint basketball star will likely remember 2018 as if it was yesterday.
After all, a lot happened last year for the lifelong member.
First, Merrill and his Utah State University teammates commenced upon a season that ended with a Mountain West Conference title and a coveted ticket to the Big Dance, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Individually, he enjoyed one of the most successful years in Aggie history — earning both conference player of the year and conference tournament MVP honors, and a spot on multiple All-American lists.
Second, Merrill gave up bachelorhood in 2018, marrying Utah State soccer player Kanyan Ward in the Logan Utah Temple.
And finally, President Russell M. Nelson provided Merrill with yet another treasured 2018 memory. On April 1, 2018, the Church president announced plans to build a temple in Managua, Nicaragua — the country where Merrill served a mission.
“That was a special moment,” he told the Church News.
Merrill remembers watching four general conferences in Nicaragua during his two-year mission. “And with each conference, we were hoping and praying that it would be the conference where they would announce a temple for Nicaragua.”
The anticipated announcement never came when he was a missionary, but Merrill still rejoiced with legions of Nicaraguan Latter-day Saints when President Nelson made the temple announcement last year.
“There are so many really good people in Nicaragua who deserve a temple,” he said. “It will help the Church grow even more. It was a special moment and I’m so happy for those people.”
While growing up in Bountiful, Utah, the Central American nation was just another spot on the globe for Merrill. But young Sam had long planned on serving a mission, wherever the call.
“In my last couple of years in high school, I started to really work toward a mission,” he said. “I decided for myself that that was what I wanted to do.”
He also wanted to play college basketball — and he was very good. The 6-foot-5-inch guard led Bountiful High to a state title during senior year and committed to play at Utah State.
Many talented Latter-day Saint athletes opt to play a year or two of college ball before leaving for a mission. But Merrill chose to serve right after high school.
No surprise, adjusting to a new culture and language wasn’t easy. “I had a couple of Spanish classes in junior high, but I didn’t remember anything,” he said, laughing.
Struggling to communicate in Spanish “was frustrating at times,” he added. “But I had a good work ethic. … I saw improvements over time, and that helped get rid of the frustrations.”
He rarely touched a basketball in Nicaragua, where soccer is the local sport of choice. He tried to get in a few pushups and situps each morning, “but I still came back home in pretty bad shape.”
Physical fitness aside, the mission taught Merrill lessons that continue to serve him well as a priesthood holder, a husband and as an elite college athlete. He discovered that rewards typically follow work and sacrifice. Resiliency is a byproduct of hope and commitment.
“I learned how to be mentally tough through difficult times,” he said.
A grueling practice or conditioning session, he added, “will never be as hard as some of the things that I went through on my mission.”
The transition from full-time missionary to Division 1 college basketball player was challenging, but Merrill enjoyed success in an Aggie uniform from the beginning. As a freshman, he led the team in assists and scored in double figures 14 times. He became Utah State’s leading scorer as a sophomore.
But it was Merrill’s junior campaign that solidified his spot among the nation’s top players.
“Last year,” he said, “was definitely a blast.”
The returned missionary’s talent and commitment has made Utah State coach Craig Smith an ardent Sam Merrill fan.
“He does it all. He’s an incredible person, unbelievable character, and the All-American type of kid. He’s the most unselfish star that I’ve ever coached in 23 years,” Smith said of Merrill in a KSL story. “He gives our guys so much confidence. Everyone talks about how good he is on offense, but he’s just as good of a defensive player. He does it all, he’s so intelligent, and our guys love him to death.”
Merrill is counting down the days until the Nov. 5 season opener versus Montana State. The Aggies are expected to again be strong. The team is ranked in the top-20 in preseason polls and is picked to repeat as Mountain West Conference champs.
The media, meanwhile, selected Merrill as the preseason conference player of the year.
The Aggies are a diverse squad that features several returned missionaries along with players from a variety of other religious and national backgrounds. “The diversity we have on our team really helps us develop chemistry and helps us on the court,” he said.
Merrill is also grateful to be married to a fellow athlete and Latter-day Saint. When it’s soccer season, he’s on the sidelines cheering on Kanyan. And when basketball season begins, Kanyan is Sam’s most loyal supporter at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum arena.
“We both understand what it’s like to be a student-athlete … it’s helped us get through the hard times,” he said.
Merrill graduates next May in business administration. He’s hoping his basketball career extends beyond the college game.
“I want to play at the highest level, wherever that may be.”