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How the Mormon mission age change is affecting female college athletes

In her own words, Jessica Chatman “had no desire to serve a mission.”

Going into her junior year of high school, she had accepted a scholarship to play basketball at BYU. Her life revolved around preparing for college and playing the game she loved.

Then she grudgingly attended a missionary preparation class, and a powerful spiritual experience sparked a dramatic change of heart.

“The car ride home was definitely a wave of emotions,” Chatman said in an email. “I was actually acting out how I was going to tell my parents. I literally did a complete 180 in that mission prep class — from not having a desire to serve a mission to knowing that a mission was what God had in store for me.”

Chatman is one example of numerous Latter-day Saint women who are preparing to serve 18-month missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at age 19. At the same time, Chatman’s decision to give up her scholarship illustrates a new variable in college sports among female Mormon athletes since President Thomas S. Monson announced new minimum age requirements for missionaries in October 2012. Female athletes can now serve two years earlier, whereas before many were near the end of their college eligibility when they turned 21.

As a result, some coaches have been scrambling to plug holes in rosters.

“It’s going to be an adjustment, more than I thought,” Jeff Judkins, BYU’s women’s basketball coach, said of the new ripple effect. “When I first heard about it (the mission age-change announcement), I thought these girls won’t want to go; they have basketball or an athletic career. But the Spirit touches these young ladies pretty fast, so we are going to have to deal with it.”

Chatman’s story

Jessica Chatman comes from a basketball family. She is the daughter of former BYU great Jeff Chatman and the sister of Jordan Chatman, who has also committed to play hoops for BYU when he returns from his mission in Taiwan in April 2014.

Jessica, a 6-foot wing player from Union High in Vancouver, Wash., is so talented that BYU offered her a scholarship after her sophomore season.

So when her stake president, Dean Barrus, asked all the Laurels to attend a mission preparation class, she went out of sense of duty, nothing more.

“I really had no desire to serve a mission,” Jessica said. “My focus was on basketball and playing at BYU.”

The room was hot and packed with people. She wanted to leave. But as the speaker related a recent missionary experience in Africa, something happened to Chatman. While she listened, a distinct image of her sitting on a couch, teaching the gospel, came into her head.

She immediately pushed it away.

“No, I don’t even want to go on a mission. I’m only here because I have to be here,” she told herself. “Then this voice told me, ‘No, you’re going to serve a mission.’”

An internal battle ensued as Chatman rationalized a list of excuses why she couldn’t go. It would ruin her plan to be at BYU with her brother. She looked forward to the fun college life. She had worked hard to earn a scholarship. Missions are hard. Again, the impression came to her mind.

“No, you are going to serve a mission."

Suddenly she felt selfish.

“Isn’t the point of life to serve God, to follow his commandments and promptings?” she said. “The Lord has done so much for me and all he’s asking for is a year and a half.”

She offered a quick prayer, asking Heavenly Father to send her a feeling of peace if he wanted her to serve a mission.

“Right then an overwhelming sense of peace came over me and I just knew I could not deny that experience that I had just had,” Chatman said. “From that point on, I knew without a doubt that I needed to serve a mission.”

The rest of the meeting was a daze as she contemplated her future. Telling her parents would be easy. Telling BYU was harder.

She plans to submit her paperwork in March when she turns 19 and hopes to leave by June 2014.

A coach's perspective

While initially unconcerned, the missionary age change began to weigh more on Judkins' mind when a player told him she was planning to go. This led him to address the team a short time later.

“I support it 100 percent,” he told his squad. “The only thing is you’ve got to let me know; you’ve got to give me advance notice so that I can prepare.”

Are you thinking about a mission? When?

Many coaches have asked the same questions since the announcement.

Utah State volleyball coach Grayson DuBose estimates that more than 60 percent of those he recruits are Latter-day Saints. The thing that caught him off guard was the speed with which everyone wanted to go. Following the announcement, three Aggies left the volleyball program to go on missions, although one ended up getting married instead. His staff had to scramble to find new players.

Fortunately, DuBose and two of his assistants are returned missionaries. He was also able to draw upon his experience as an assistant with the BYU men’s volleyball program to implement a new recruiting model.

“(At first) we were reacting instead of acting,” DuBose said. “Now we have to be more proactive with it.”

Junior college

Several coaches at Salt Lake Community College and Snow College agree that the missionary age change has only had a minimal impact on women’s sports at the junior college level. They also agree it is too soon to predict a trend for how the missionary age change will affect their programs overall.

SLCC women’s basketball coach Betsy Specketer has had one player leave for a mission and one high school recruit talk about going.

SLCC softball coach Cyndee Bennett said she lost two sophomores to missions and doesn’t know if they will return.

Snow College women’s basketball coach Natalie Visger said the missionary age change will make recruiting more complicated, but anticipates a positive impact overall.

“All players have issues and concerns. A mission is just one of the things we deal with as coaches. … In past years I have watched several young men come back to play with added maturity,” Visger said in an email. “It will be interesting to see if the ladies respond the same way. … There are lots of questions that we don’t have answers for at this time.”

Snow College volleyball coach Keven John has had three athletes leave on missions since the change and several are going at the end of this season.

“We have embraced it,” John said. “We feel like a two-year college is perfect for those contemplating a mission.”

Advice and coming back

Since the announcement, two of Judkins’ players have left on missions while two others graduated and ended up on missions. Two more are thinking about it. Judkins likes the fact that young men can depart right after high school. It’s harder to plan for at 19, he said.

“I can see this getting bigger and bigger, with more players wanting to go on missions,” said Judkins, who recalled similar situations when he recruited young men at the University of Utah. “I have to prepare for it. The first couple of years may be hard because you can’t cover yourself fast enough. Hopefully I’ll be prepared.”

Judkins sought advice from BYU men’s head coach Dave Rose, who told him to stagger the missionaries out so they aren’t all going and returning at the same time.

“Get it where you can spread them out. You can’t have four girls out at once,” Judkins said. “Balance it out.”

What kind of condition will they be in when they return? Good question, DuBose said.

“It would take guys a year to get their legs back, where they were jumping as high and as athletic as they were before,” DuBose said. “With women, this is uncharted waters for all of us.”

Judkins is not worried about how they will perform. He holds up former Cougar Melanie Pearson, an all-conference transfer from UCLA, as an example. Following her mission, Pearson led BYU to the Sweet Sixteen in 2002.

“She didn’t lose a beat,” Judkins said. “I’ve had three girls that have had babies. It’s a lot harder to come back physically and mentally from that. It can be done, but it’s difficult.”

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