SALT LAKE CITY — When Parker Van Dyke and Beau Rydalch left to serve LDS Church missions, the Utah basketball program had just posted its first winning season in five years. The Utes went 21-12 in Larry Krystkowiak’s third campaign at the helm and reached the NIT.
Since then, Utah has made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. The Huntsman Center has been renovated and the program has moved into a new state-of-the-art practice complex.
The improvements were made while Van Dyke was in Alabama and Rydalch in Ecuador as volunteers for their faith.
“There are a lot of differences, especially this beautiful facility that we have here,” said Van Dyke, who added that a lot of players on the team are different from his freshman season in 2013-14. “But as far as the coaching staff and the way we do things, our culture here at the U. is still the same.”
Van Dyke said that has been an advantage in his return to the team.
“I know what the coaches expect,” Van Dyke said. “I know our practices and things like that.”
The new resources, he continued, have made it a great transition.
Van Dyke and Rydalch returned home within a couple days of each other in May and have since been working their way back into basketball shape.
“We both started hitting the ground running with strength and conditioning,” said Rydalch, a preferred walk-on who has yet to play college basketball.
Mission rust, the duo insist, is real. It’s something they’ve definitely talked about.
“I stayed in pretty good shape on my mission. About as good as I guess you can,” Van Dyke said. “But it’s a whole different level of conditioning in college basketball.”
Adjusting to elevation again and getting into the everyday routine of strength and conditioning has taken some time. Van Dyke credits the coaching staff for doing a great job of easing him back into shape.
“I feel pretty confident right now. It definitely takes about a couple of months or so,” Van Dyke said. “At first the feel of the game was a little off for me. But I’m getting there. It’s been great with this facility.”
Krystkowiak has been impressed with Van Dyke, who averaged 2.5 points in nearly 10 minutes per game as a freshman.
“You could just see when Parker got off the plane that he was a different guy, and it’s carrying over onto the basketball court. I feel like he’s got a sense of confidence and belonging — maybe where he didn’t as a freshman,” Krystkowiak said of Van Dyke’s confidence. “He’s been tremendous. His body is really fit. He’s really sound fundamentally and is a great player to coach in our practice setting.”
Krystkowiak noted that there is always some rust on returned missionaries. However, like most things, he doesn’t believe you can paint everything with the same brush. Krystkowiak said a lot of people respond differently.
Van Dyke, a 6-foot-3 guard from East High School, may have come back in better condition than when he left. Krystkowiak recalls emails that revealed ways Van Dyke was finding ways to play basketball on his mission. Stories included joining his companion in challenging others to two-on-two matchups. If the missionaries prevailed, the opponents would listen to their message.
“I think they whipped up on a lot of people in Alabama and were able to spread the word through basketball,” Krystkowiak said. “So I don’t think he was completely away from it like some kids would be.”
Van Dyke was able to keep in touch occasionally with Krystkowiak, the staff and some of the players with little notes here and there via email.
“It was great to just hear from them personally about the success they were having,” Van Dyke said.
The Runnin’ Utes went 53-18 while he was gone.
“I definitely knew it was on the rise when I left, especially the team I left,” Van Dyke said. “That was pretty fun to listen and hear about on my mission.”
Van Dyke’s decision to take the two-year sabbatical was backed by those in the program. He said it was always left up to him.
“I always had the support from the coaches and the university,” Van Dyke explained.
Rydalch, a 6-foot-6 guard from South Summit High School, also noted a positive culture concerning missions. The son of former Utah captain Craig Rydalch also received a lot of support when he left for Ecuador. In fact, Rydalch already had his mission call when he committed to the Utes. In turn, they kept a roster spot open for him.
“That was very good for me,” Rydalch said. “They stayed in contact with my dad while I was gone.”
Rydalch is eager to follow a family legacy that also includes his uncle Mark.
“From the time I was a little kid I’d put my dad’s old jersey on and play around in our backyard and come to games. I acted like I was my dad,” Rydalch said. “It’s really awesome to be able to come and play here. It’s really a dream come true.”
As a walk-on, Rydalch is determined to do the best he can to contribute and help the team get better. Whatever the coaches ask, he continued, it’ll be done.
The returned missionaries are returning to a program that has assimilated well to the Pac-12 after five years of membership. Utah has gone from last place to second overall during that time.
“It’s definitely a high level of competition, which makes it fun,” Rydalch said. “It makes it fun working hard and playing with these guys that are great players, and I’m sure we’ll have a great team this year, too.”
Van Dyke also sees a bright future for the program. That’s the direction things were going at the time he left on his mission.
“I knew we were going to get better. The better your team gets, the better recruits you have,” Van Dyke said. “So this team, I feel like, is very talented.”
The high level of competition within the team, Van Dyke continued, only makes you better.
Putting returned missionaries in the mix is part of the equation at Utah. Krystkowiak said that most college boards go out four or five years.
“You’re trying to keep your classes somewhat even and keeping an eye on things. In our case, you add a couple of more years to that,” he said. “So it’s a little bit more of a planning phase. But I’m all for it.”
While noting that everyone has beliefs and goals, Krystkowiak said that the only thing to determine in the case of a mission is whether the young man decides to go right after high school or wait a year. Finding a “win-win” solution for the player and the program affords some flexibility. Krystkowiak said some of the prospective missionaries the Utes are recruiting have expressed a desire to do what’s best for both parties.
Accommodating missionaries comes with the territory.
“It’s part of the fabric. It’s part of the environment that we’re in, and I completely accept it,” Krystkowiak said. “I think each kid has got plans for their future, and if the church is part of that plan and a mission is part of that plan, then we’re completely into it. It’s all part of the process for these kids to grow up, and no two are the same.”
Krystkowiak added that it’s no different than recruiting non-LDS kids.
“Everybody’s got different plans and goals,” he said. “You just try to figure out a way it make it work for everybody involved.”