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Soccer player chooses mission

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Extraordinary. Amazing. Inspiring.

All of those adjectives — and any number of others — could be used to describe Junior Lartey's performance on the soccer field.

But, by all accounts, those same descriptions are even better used in explaining Lartey's character off the field, and most specifically, the sacrifices he made for his plans to serve an LDS Church mission.

A full ride — on, then off

Despite being extended a full-ride soccer scholarship to the University of North Carolina, Lartey — a two-time first-team all-state defender who helped Mountain View High School to its first-ever 4A state championship in his junior year — will not be playing for the Tar Heels.

Instead, Lartey, who turned 18 on July 15, will be staying home in Orem to play for BYU before leaving for his mission in summer 2011.

That turn of events following the state title season came about after Lartey attended a soccer camp in North Carolina and greatly impressed the coaching staff there.

After initially offering the scholarship, North Carolina head coach Elmar Bolowich had a follow-up conversation with Lartey.

"He asked me, 'I remember you said you're a Mormon. There's that mission thing, right?'" Lartey said.

When he expressed his intention to serve a mission, he was essentially given an ultimatum: Leaving for two years meant that the scholarship offer was off the table.

Although he "thought about it" for a couple of days, Lartey had truly made up his mind years before.

"Growing up, my parents never asked me, 'Are you going on a mission?'" he said, "Because I always knew, and they always knew that's what I was going to do."

When Lartey called back with his final decision, he said the coach wished him good luck in life.

"I think he was more confused than anything else that I would choose a mission over the scholarship," Lartey said.

When contacted by the Deseret News, Bolowich said he doesn't recall Lartey or offering him the scholarship.

In a series of e-mail communications, Bolowich stated, in part: "(You) must have the wrong school. (I) don't know who Junior Lartey is … I do not remember this happening."

Bonnie Larter, sounding just like a proud mother — because that's exactly who she is — isn't surprised at the decision her son made, but at the same time is impressed because of the circumstances involved.

"He's a good boy; he has a strong testimony," Bonnie said. "He's planned a mission his whole life."

Keeping his dream alive

The finality of that conversation with North Carolina's coach was initially almost devastating. "When I first turned it down, I thought, 'That's it; I'm not going to play again,'" Lartey said.

But after the dust settled, he realized his playing days were not over.

"I have always had the attitude to never let your dreams slip away."

BYU's semi-professional team certainly had interest in Lartey's services, but head coach Chris Watkins thought he had lost any chance of that when Lartey committed to take his talents to the East.

So when Junior said he would play for the Cougars and delivered himself to the club in Provo, Watkins knew they had gained someone special.

"In-state recruiting has been a challenge for us, so anytime we can get one of the top kids in the state, it's big," Watkins said. "(North Carolina) is a top program. (Getting one of their recruits) is very rare for us."

Although Lartey's playing time was very limited during his first season, Watkins believes Lartey's role on the team will be significant in the future.

"From everything I have heard and through everyone I have talked to and from what I've seen myself, all indications are that he's a perfect fit for our team," Watkins said.

Preparing — for the game and for life

It didn't take long for Lartey to see that not only was he learning needed on-the-field skills, he was also picking up valuable life lessons from his teammates.

"Most of the guys have been on missions, so they are always bringing up something from their missions, and applying lessons they have learned to things on the field," Lartey said.

Since he is used to being a star on the field, it's been an adjustment for him to sit on the bench so much. A short, simple conversation he had with a teammate during an admittedly frustrating time had an impact on him.

"During this game on the bench, (he) told me that one of the things he learned on his mission was to have patience," Lartey said.

Following his parents' examples

It's nice to have so many returned missionary teammates to look up to, but Lartey has always had a couple of fine examples: his parents.

They both served full-time missions — Bonnie to the Philippines and his father, Emmanuel, to Arcadia, Calif.

"His mother and I both understand that's what you do," Emmanuel said. "You stay worthy and then you go on a mission."

Sounds simple enough, but Lartey emphasizes he has long made a conscious effort to stay on the right track in preparation to serve his church for two years.

"I think a big key to staying worthy is to keep busy," he said. "Constantly doing something with the right group of people."

Like father, like son

Lartey doesn't need to brag about his playing ability. Dad will take care of that.

"He's better than I was at this age," Emmanuel said. "He's got the height (6 feet), the foot skills, the vision; he's got the intangibles."

Growing up in Ghana, Emmanuel also had big soccer aspirations, along with his brother.

"I was good enough to play in the pros," Emmanuel said in a matter-of-fact way. "But my dad wouldn't let us play on Sundays."

After Emmanuel was baptized at 19, he moved to the United States for good three years later and started his family and passed on his love of soccer.

"When Junior was little I would take he and his older sisters every Friday night to visit their mom working as a nurse at the hospital," Emmanuel said. "Then we would go to the Smith Fieldhouse at BYU and play soccer."

Looking forward

Lartey's mission departure is still about a year away, which means he has one more season to play.

He is happy to be a part of the Cougars squad.

"I never thought I was going to go (to BYU), but I'm loving it here and it can only get better," he said.

Watkins, who mentioned that the team has made trips to places like Mexico, Chile and Costa Rica, says the players embrace the whole experience.

"They really want to do something that's more than winning and losing a soccer game."

e-mail: cpeterson@desnews.com