The Brigham Young University women’s soccer team has always accommodated players wanting to serve LDS missions, just not like this.
Before The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reduced the age requirement for women to serve from 21 to 19 in October 2012, any soccer player desiring to go usually left after her junior season.
Now, they typically go after their freshman year, which is more challenging in a sport where coaches recruit players as early as two to four years in advance, BYU coach Jennifer Rockwood said.
“It’s worked out well for us. We support and are excited for those girls who choose to go, but it does make it a challenge for us to figure out how it’s going to work. Everybody comes back different. You don’t know once you send them off what’s going to happen,” Rockwood said. “But we’ve been fortunate with players like Rachel and Paige, who have come back and reached a high level so quickly. That is exciting.”
Rockwood is referring to Rachel Boaz, a junior goalkeeper from Murrieta, California, and Paige Hunt, a junior midfielder from Bountiful. Both players have returned from serving 18-month Mormon missions, with Boaz laboring in Everett, Washington, and Hunt in Indianapolis.
In addition to helping the No. 5 Cougars reach a 12-2-2 record this year, Rockwood has appreciated the dedication, discipline, maturity and leadership demonstrated by her two returned missionaries.
“They lead through example and have earned the respect of their teammates. I think the experiences they have and the spirit they bring to the team really help us,” Rockwood said. “They did all they could during their mission to make the transition back (to the field) easier, which takes a lot of discipline and dedication. For them to come back and play at the level they are playing at right now is truly remarkable.”
Boaz and Hunt are both thrilled to be part of this new trend of female athletes serving missions.
“It’s the best decision I have ever made,” Boaz said. “A huge blessing.”
A transfer of faith
Boaz was San Diego State’s top goalkeeper in 2011 and 2012, which included a run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Life was good, then she had "a complete stupor of thought,” Boaz said.
“I started to feel something pull in my heart and knew it was the Lord. I couldn’t see myself in San Diego the next two years, even though we had just finished a very successful season,” Boaz said. “It was the weirdest feeling. I knew a change was needed.”
As Boaz considered what to do, she received a call from a family friend who encouraged her to serve a mission. She fasted, prayed and waited for a clear answer from the Lord, but it didn’t come until months later when she fully embraced the idea of leaving soccer and a scholarship at SDSU.
“OK, if this is what you want me to do, I am willing to give up everything to go,” Boaz said. “The next day, I got a strong confirmation through a bishop’s blessing. The next day after that, the LDS Institute director contacted BYU and they were happy about the possibility of me coming. I bawled.”
Boaz returned from serving a mission last December. As her 23-year-old body readjusted to being a goalkeeper, she pulled a few muscles but became the starting goalkeeper and counted her blessings.
“It was a long process, but it also taught me patience through a few injuries,” said Boaz, who has been called upon at times to answer gospel-related questions from teammates and at least one non-Mormon bus driver on a road trip. “I learned to believe in the process. If the Lord led me here, there is a plan. I know he is watching over me, and whatever happens is for the best.”
When asked what advice she would give other LDS female athletes considering a mission, Boaz said to go because you love the Lord.
“There is no greater joy you can find on the field of sports, or anything temporal, than the joy you find in serving a mission,” Boaz said. “Nothing can compare, not even a championship.”
'Don't be scared'
Hunt laughs about it now, but she admits she was terrified when she first approached Rockwood about serving a mission. Within moments of entering the coach’s office, Hunt was in tears.
“I didn’t how she would react. I didn’t know if she would want me back or if there would be a scholarship for me when I came back,” Hunt said. “She just smiled and said, ‘Of course we want you back.’ She has been so supportive.”
Hunt waited a year so she would only miss one season, then departed for Indianapolis. She served under the leadership of former BYU men’s basketball coach Steve Cleveland, who often asked if she was corresponding with her coaches, exercising, eating well and getting enough sleep.
Indeed she was. Hunt’s workout routine started each day at 5:30 a.m. with a sleepy companion close by.
“My companions couldn’t keep up with me outside, but luckily they were willing to wake up with me and sit right there while I did the treadmill for an hour,” Hunt said.
One memorable experience came as Hunt was assigned to the area that included the campus of Purdue University. She and her companion met a young woman wearing a Boilermakers women’s soccer jacket, which sparked a conversation about college women’s soccer.
“I was able to bear testimony of how important the church was to me, that I put off my college career to come share this message with people, and that it would be worthwhile to listen to a little bit,” Hunt said. “We taught her and she was later baptized.”
In the process of teaching this athletic investigator, Hunt obtained permission from President Cleveland to work out with her and other members of the Purdue women’s soccer team in an informal, free-play setting with no coaches. She answered a lot of questions about the church and the Word of Wisdom, the church’s health code, and Hunt said the opportunity was a tender mercy from the Lord.
“It was incredible. I realized I hadn’t lost as much (physical ability) as I thought I had,” Hunt said. “It also strengthened my testimony of how much Heavenly Father knows us individually and puts us in certain situations for a purpose. My prayers were answered, and everything was good.”
Like her teammate Boaz, Hunt believes her mission has enhanced her abilities as a soccer player. The 21-year-old says she plays with more patience and composure.
Teammates and young girls at soccer camps have sought Hunt’s advice on different matters because she is a returned missionary, and she is happy to share what wisdom she can.
To those considering a mission, Hunt says go for it.
“I say do it, no holding back. Don’t be scared,” Hunt said. “Heavenly Father will take care of you. Everything will work out. It is possible to come back and compete. My mission has changed my life.”
Boaz and Hunt are just the beginning when it comes to missionaries on the BYU women’s soccer team. Six others are currently serving missions, with three scheduled to return next fall.
“It will be interesting to see in the transition as these missionaries come back what the success rate is of those who make it and those who choose to go a different way,” Rockwood said. “It certainly can be done, it’s proven to be done, but it’s not easy. We feel blessed and lucky to have players like Paige and Rachel on our team right now.”
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