A little over a year ago, Whitney Johnson seriously considered walking away from college basketball. Perhaps it was time to "be a big girl and get a job," she thought.
But Johnson is grateful she didn't quit. She would have missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime — playing on the same team with her little sister, Kiana Johnson, at Southern Utah University.
"It was a dream scenario," Kiana Johnson said in a phone interview with the Deseret News. "We wanted it but didn't think it would really happen. There was no way. Then she surprised me."
How the Johnson sisters ended up together at SUU was the result of a series of events that included both women serving missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Another returned missionary, Utah State senior Connor Garner, has spent most of his college career as a scout team player and team manager.
The Johnsons and Garner are three of more than 40 returned Mormon missionaries (men and women) found on Division I college basketball rosters for the 2016-17 season.
The Johnson sisters
Serving an LDS mission had always been a goal for Whitney Johnson, but she didn't think she'd go until after her career at the University of New Mexico. But a torn ACL and a torn Achilles tendon in less than three years changed her mind.
"I was angry for a long time," Whitney Johnson said in a phone interview with the Deseret News. "One night I prayed and told God I would try to get over this and move forward. That week someone mentioned something about a mission and it plagued my mind. I couldn't stop thinking about a mission."
SUU's Whitney Johnson posts up against an North Dakota defender in a game this season. Johnson is one of several returned LDS missionaries playing college basketball this season. | SUU Athletics
Soon she received a mission call to serve in Mexico City.
Kiana Johnson, two and a half years younger than her sister, never intended to serve a mission.
"It was not on my radar," Kiana Johnson said. "I was going to play college basketball, go to nursing school and live my life."
The idea was planted as Kiana Johnson graduated from high school and a seminary teacher suggested she would make a great missionary. The idea was never far away after that.
When Kiana Johnson tore her ACL in her first year at the University of Northern Colorado and the coaches who recruited her were fired, missionary service beckoned, she said.
"I kept praying for a mission and eventually that is what I felt I was supposed to do," Kiana Johnson said.
Southern Utah teammates and sisters Whitney, left, and Kiana Johnson on a hike. The sisters Johnson transferred to SUU prior to this season after both serving LDS missions. | Provided by Kiana Johnson
The new coach at Northern Colorado wasn't familiar with the mission concept and made no promises about holding a scholarship for Kiana Johnson. She knew leaving might mean the end of her college basketball opportunity but followed her heart to Cape Verde, Africa, and like her sister, had a sweet experience.
Toward the end of Kiana Johnson's mission, her father, Peter Johnson, shared her game film with Southern Utah women's basketball coach Chris Boettcher. He liked what he saw and offered Kiana Johnson a scholarship, which she accepted.
Meanwhile, big sister Whitney Johnson had returned from the mission field and renewed her efforts at New Mexico. But physically and mentally, it was a tough year, she said. Her coach was fired at the end of the year. Whitney Johnson had graduated and considered moving on with life at that point, but prayer and not wanting to end her basketball career on a sour note led her to call "Coach B" at Southern Utah and explore the possibility of joining her sister in Cedar City.
The day Kiana Johnson returned home from her mission, her big sister called with the good news that they would both be members of the 2016-17 Thunderbirds.
Since coming together at Southern Utah, the sisters have lived in a home with three other roommates, organized team group dates and relished their experience as a blessing, with only occasional discord.
Southern Utah teammates and sisters Whitney (21) and Kiana (15) Johnson have fun during a team photo shoot. The sisters Johnson transferred to SUU prior to this season after both serving LDS missions. | Provided by Kiana Johnson
"She has changed a lot; I have changed a lot; people may think we fight more than we do because we get mad and clash sometimes, but we still love each other and are best friends," said Whitney Johnson, who is one of SUU's team captains this season. "We have become close and do everything together."
"It's been a really fun experience coming back and playing together, being together," Kiana Johnson said. "(Whitney) gives me courage to do more fun things and have a good college experience."
Whitney Johnson plays center and is finishing her junior year of basketball eligibility. She is working on her master's of business administration.
Kiana Johnson is a freshman guard and hopes to start a two-year nursing program in the fall.
Utah State's Connor Garner leaped high to grab an offensive rebound and, before his opponent could react, went back up and kissed the ball off the glass for two points.
Garner's hustle play came near the end of practice in the empty Dee Glen Smith Spectrum and was only witnessed by teammates, coaches and a few others. But the rebound and score was respectable considering Garner is a walk-on wearing a yellow scout team jersey and had used his scrappiness to beat one of USU's starting players on the play. In frustration, the starting player grabbed the basketball with two hands and slammed it against the court.
Utah State's Connor Garner takes a jump shot during an exhibition game against Southern Virginia last November. | Rick Parker, Provided by USU athletics
That's when Garner knew he had done his job giving the first team a good look in preparation for the next day's game against San Diego State.
Garner, a senior from Raft River, Idaho, first made the team as a freshman in 2012-13. The highlight of that year was logging three minutes of action at Lousiana Tech, he said.
For the next three years, Garner served as a team manager, playing on the scout team, doing laundry and video work, packing equipment bags and setting up the gym for practice so he could remain part of the team.
Coming into this season, the 6-foot-2-inch, 190-pound Garner asked USU head coach Tim Duryea if he could walk on and wear a uniform for his final year.
"I wanted to give it one more chance at being part of a Division I school," said Garner, whose parents and grandparents also attended Utah State. "I won't be doing this next year. This is my last chance, and I don't want to have any regrets."
Lessons of perseverance and hard work, developed as a Mormon missionary in Hermosillo, Mexico, have made a difference for Garner in continuing to bring his best efforts to practice each day, especially in the last month of each season.
"I wouldn't trade my mission for the world," said the blond-haired senior. "I've been able to approach and get through a lot of hard days because of what I learned as a missionary."
Garner's consistence, reliability and likable disposition are why Duryea let him wear the Aggie uniform this season.
"That’s what you look for, somebody who is a loyal soldier. They do what they are supposed to do, are where they are supposed to be, when they are supposed to be there, and are the right kind of person when nobody is looking," Duryea said. "That’s Connor Garner. That's why it was an easy decision for me."
Coach Duryea hopes to get Garner into a couple of games as the regular season comes to an end. Utah State has traditionally started its seniors in the final home game, but Garner isn't holding his breath.
"If it happens, that would be awesome, a dream come true. But I'm not expecting that," he said. "What I am looking forward to is maybe 10 years from now when I see Utah State play on TV and can say I was part of that. This experience will always be a part of me and I will always feel like I belong."
RMs on the court
This year's list of more than 40 returned missionaries on Division I college basketball teams includes 12 players from Brigham Young University, including three on the women's team; five at Utah Valley University, with one returned sister missionary; five at Southern Utah, with the Johnson sisters and another on the women's team; four at Utah State University; three each at the University of Utah, Weber State and Idaho State; and one each at Boston College, Colgate, Colorado State, Cornell, Harvard, Montana State and North Carolina. The list is not all-inclusive.
Brigham Young University (12)
BYU's Jessica Chatman looks to pass during a game with Loyola Marymount last December. | Tabitha Sumsion, BYU photo
• Jessica Chatman, Ridgefield, Washington (Union HS), Fr., forward; served in Lansing, Michigan.
• Brooke Clawson, Dallas (Woodrow Wilson HS/American School Foundation of Monterrey), Jr., forward; served in Concepcion, Chile.
• Payton Dastrup, Mesa, Arizona (Mountain View HS), Fr., forward; served in Panama.
• Kyle Davis, Draper (SUU/Utah State), Sr., forward; served in Detroit.
• Nick Emery, Alpine (Lone Peak HS), So., guard; served in Germany.
• Zach Frampton, Highland, Utah (Lone Peak HS), Fr., guard; served in Chile.
• Davin Guinn, Murrieta, California (UC Riverside), Jr., guard; served in Mexico.
• TJ Haws, Alpine (Lone Peak HS), Fr., guard; served in France.
• Corbin Kaufusi, Provo (Timpview HS), Jr., center; served in South Korea.
• Eric Mika, Alpine (Lone Peak HS), So., forward; served in Italy.
• Braiden Shaw, Eagle, Idaho (Eagle HS), So., forward; served in Sacramento, California.
• Ashton Williams, Springfield, Illinois (Springfield HS/USAFA), So., guard; served in Lima, Peru.
Boston College (1)
• Jordan Chatman, Vancouver, Washington (Union HS), So., guard; served in Taipei, Taiwan.
• Nathan Harries, Alpharetta, Georgia (Centennial HS), Sr., center; served in North Carolina.
Colorado State (1)
• Braden Koelliker, Kaysville, Utah (Davis HS/Snow College), So., forward/center. Served in Knoxville, Tennessee.
• Kyle Brown, Bellevue, Washington (Newport HS), Jr., guard; served in Montevideo, Uruguay.
• Corbin Miller, Sandy (Brighton HS), Sr., guard; served in Mexico.
Idaho State (3)
• Hayes Garrity, Beaverton, Oregon (Westview HS/UVU), Sr., guard; served in Louisville, Kentucky.
Idaho State's Hayes Garrity (0) moves the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Boise State in Boise, Idaho, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016. | Otto Kitsinger/Associated Press
• Eric Nakken, Cedar City (Cedar City HS), Jr., guard; served in the Alpine German-Speaking Mission.
• Clark Wilkinson, Pocatello, Idaho (Highland HS), Fr., forward; served in Arcadia, California.
Montana State (1)
• Konner Frey, Bountiful (Viewmont HS/Utah Valley), Sr., forward; served in Singapore.
University of North Carolina (1)
• Stilman White, Wilmington, North Carolina (Hoggard HS), Sr., guard; served in Ogden.
Southern Utah University (5)
• Ashley Baugh, American Fork (American Fork HS/UVU), So., guard/forward; served in Austria and Germany.
• Brayden Holker, Saratoga Springs, Utah (Westlake HS), Fr., forward; served in Independence, Missouri.
• Kiana Johnson, Tuscaloosa, Alabama (Northridge HS/Northern Colorado), Fr., guard; served in Cape Verde, Africa
• Whitney Johnson, Highland (Lone Peak HS/New Mexico), Jr., center; served in Mexico City.
• Joel Swallow, Flowell, Millard County (Millard HS), Fr., forward; served in England.
University of Utah (3)
Returned LDS missionaries and Utah basketball players Beau Rydalch (left) and Parker Van Dyke pose for photos inside the basketball facility in Salt Lake City. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
• David Collette, Murray (Murray HS/Utah State), Jr., forward; served in Charlotte, North Carolina.
• Beau Rydalch, Oakley, Summit County (South Summit HS), Fr., guard; served in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
• Parker Van Dyke, Salt Lake City (East HS), So., guard; served in Birmingham, Alabama.
Utah State University (4)
• Connor Garner, Raft River, Idaho (Declo HS), Sr., guard; served in Hermosillo, Mexico.
• Sam Merrill, Bountiful (Bountiful HS), Fr., guard; served in Nicaragua.
Utah State's Connor Garner gets on the court during an exhibition game in Logan last November. | Rick Parker, Provided by USU Athletics
• Abel Porter, Farmington (Davis HS), Fr., guard; served in Russia.
• Quinn Taylor, Houston (Langham Creek HS), So., forward; served in Sao Paulo.
Utah Valley University (5)
• Cory Calvert, Parker, Colorado (Chaparral HS/BYU), Fr., guard; served in Boston.
• Britta Hall, Tualatin, Oregon (Tualatin HS), So., guard; served in Chile.
• Isaac Neilson, Mission Viejo, California (Mission Viejo HS/BYU), Jr., forward; served in Alabama.
• Zach Nelson, Yuba City, California (Yuba City HS), Jr., forward; served in Lubbock, Texas.
UVU guard Britta Hall dribbles the ball against Weber State in a game in Orem last November. | Jay Drowns, Provided by UVU Athletics
• Conner Toolson, Highland, Utah (Lone Peak HS), So., guard; served in Fort Worth, Texas.
Weber State (3)
• Dusty Baker, Coto de Caza, California (Saddleback JC), Jr., guard/forward; served in Denver.
• McKay Butler, Farmington (Viewmont HS), Fr., guard; served in Hamilton, New Zealand.
• McKay Cannon, Shelley, Idaho (Shelley HS), So., guard; served in Chile.
If you know of a returned missionary who is playing college basketball at a Division I school that we missed, please send the name of the player, the team and the mission to firstname.lastname@example.org.