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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Shaylyn Orr, left, from BYU's soccer team, is leaving on a mission in April, and Ashleigh Warner returned from a mission last January and will soon return to BYU's track team. The age change that allows women to go on missions at the age of 19 instead of 21 has presented new challenges to the women's athletic teams at BYU. They are pictured here Tuesday, March 10, 2015, in Provo.
They came in one by one and it was interesting that some of them were apologetic. They were saying, ’Would it be OK if I do this?’ They were timid about it, thinking<i> this coach is not going to like this</i>. But I just smiled. I said, ‘Congratulations. What a wonderful thing. It’s the best thing you could do now.’ —Pat Shane

Imagine you’re Pat Shane and you just signed the best recruiting class in the history of the BYU women’s cross-country program. No, it’s better than that — it’s the best class of recruits in the nation in 2012, or so he believes — one that sets Shane up for the next four to five years.

And then one by one those recruits walk into his office and tell him good-bye; they pack up their things and leave the team and the school.

They’re going away for 18 months to serve missions for the LDS Church.

OK, this is commonplace at BYU, you’re thinking. Not for the women’s teams. During his first 30 years of coaching at the school, Shane estimates he had only a dozen athletes leave the team to serve missions. Then in October 2012, the LDS Church announced the age limit for female missionaries was being lowered from 21 to 19, and the exodus began.

Shane’s golden recruiting class was wiped out. Seven runners from that class told him they were leaving to serve missions.

“At that point, it was too late (to sign other recruits),” says Shane. “Everyone had signed.” So he limped along for a season, mostly with walk-ons.

No team was more impacted by the age change than Shane’s cross-country team, but others experienced it to varying degrees. The women’s soccer team had only two players serve missions during the first two years after the age change, but last fall five players informed coach Jennifer Rockwood they plan to leave on missions. That will leave a huge hole in the team next fall.

“We recruit three to four years in advance,” says Rockwood. “When we made recruiting decisions, we felt we had 26 kids on the roster for the fall. There’s no way to replace them. We couldn’t fill in for them for just one year.”

As a result, she will carry only 18 field players (not counting goalies) on next season’s roster, compared to the normal 22-25.

Since the age change, the volleyball and softball teams have both had just one player leave their teams to serve missions. The women’s track team has had 12 missionaries in the two-plus years since the announcement (including the seven distance runners from the cross-country team).

“A lot more are going since they changed the age limit,” says head track coach Ed Eyestone.

BYU’s basketball team has had only two players leave on missions since the announcement, and one of them was a walk-on. “I don’t know why we haven’t had more,” says coach Jeff Judkins. “I’ve had girls talk about going on missions in a year, but then they didn’t.”

Before the age limit was lowered, it was rare that female athletes left teams and schools to serve missions. As Shane explains, “By the time you reach 21, you only have one year of eligibility left and a lot of the young women are engaged or married by then, so we didn’t have many who went out.”

Rockwood agrees. “In years past, we haven’t had to worry about missions. When they wanted to go, they waited till they were finished with their eligibility. So the age change has had a big impact on our program.”

The sudden exodus of missionaries left big holes on the women’s rosters because, unlike their male counterparts, they had no returning missionaries to balance the losses — something that will be remedied now that they have missionaries going and coming.

The change in the age limit was intended to give young people more options when it came to serving a mission. The change significantly increased the number of missionaries, which has been reflected on women’s athletic teams at BYU.

After the church made the announcement, Shane’s athletes began showing up at his office. “They came in one by one and it was interesting that some of them were apologetic,” says Shane. “They were saying, ’Would it be OK if I do this?’ They were timid about it, thinking this coach is not going to like this. But I just smiled. I said, ‘Congratulations. What a wonderful thing. It’s the best thing you could do now.’ ”

Rockwood faced the same challenge last fall as players broke the news to her. One of them was Shaylyn Orr, a freshman from Draper who spoke to Rockwood after practice to tell her of her plans for a mission (she will leave April 29).

“It was a hard decision,” says Orr. “It wasn’t hard to tell the coaches because I felt at peace about it and I knew that’s what I was supposed to do. But I was nervous about it. I had worked my whole life to get here (to play college soccer). I told (Rockwood), ‘I love this team, but I feel like I should go on a mission.’ She was happy and supportive. She said, ‘I saw this coming with you.’ ”

The first wave of female athlete-missionaries is returning from their missions. With little experience in such matters, Rockwood is uncertain what to expect from soccer players who have been away from the game. Among those who will return to the soccer team is Paige Hunt, a star player who left after her sophomore season in 2013 (although that didn’t prevent her from being named to the preseason all-conference team last fall).

“We haven’t seen what the impact will be on players once they get back,” says Rockwood.

Shane has had more experience on that front. Before the age change, a handful of track and cross-country athletes served missions, including Marty Aparicio, Kassi Anderson and Amy Menlove, who earned All-American honors both before and after their missions. Shane expects the same results with the latest wave of missionaries from the star-studded recruiting class of 2012. Ashleigh Warner, a state champion and state record holder, recently returned from her mission, and she will soon be joined by Erica Birk, another state champion/record holder from Coalville who has been serving a mission.

“It was definitely hard and it took me awhile to decide to leave and to understand what I was doing,” says Warner. “But I prayed about it, and after I received an answer that I needed to go, I felt at ease about it and was able to let go of running. I was able to focus on my mission.”

Warner, who ran only a few times during her mission, returned in January and has resumed training. “It’s slowly coming back,” she says.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com