BYU women’s soccer players feel blessed from missionary service

Paige Hunt Barker (center) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal earlier this season. Hunt Barker is one of six women's soccer players to serve a LDS mission. (BYU Photo)
Paige Hunt Barker, center, celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal earlier this season. Hunt Barker is one of six BYU women’s soccer players to serve a LDS mission. (BYU Photo)

The women’s soccer team — like many other athletic teams on campus — gets the opportunity to watch some of its players go on full-time LDS missions.

While many programs would find a two-year hiatus harmful, the BYU women’s soccer team embraces it.

“They gained a different type of maturity and the big picture becomes even more clear (for the team) when you have those types of experiences,” BYU head coach Jennifer Rockwood said.

Kayci Griffin, Paige Hunt Barker, Ella Johnson, Rachel Bingham, Rachel Boaz and Alyssa Jefferson have all served missions during their collegiate careers.

When a player leaves to serve a mission, her spot on the team is held in reserve. The coaching staff encourages players to make whatever decision is the best fit for them.

Once those choices are made, the coaching staff gives the players complete support. While some players decide to stay in school, others decide to serve missions. For some, that means learning a new language and living outside the country for 18 months.

Regardless of where they went, serving a mission meant players were unable to train and keep in the shape necessary to be a collegiate athlete. They can’t practice, take the time to run or keep up with the playbook.

Hunt Barker served in the Indiana Indianapolis Mission. Despite the potential soccer-related setbacks she faced, she said she received an unexpected blessing.

“I was scared to serve,” Hunt Barker said. “I was thinking I would come home and wouldn’t be able to play physically and mentally. The Lord provided many opportunities for me to play on my mission so I could be ready when I came home.”

Hunt Barker is now one of BYU’s starting midfielders and a team leader, but she still thinks back to her time in Indiana.

“When I went to Indiana I realized how hard life can really be outside of my comfortable BYU circle,” Hunt Barker said. “I was amazed by the people I taught, the people I served with. I can’t imagine not knowing those people.”

Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Ella Johnson kicks the ball against Nebraska. Johnson served a LDS mission in Omaha. (BYU Photo)

Jefferson served in Santa Ana, El Salvador. She believed she would always have the opportunity to play soccer, but she wouldn’t always be able to serve a mission.

When Jefferson arrived back in Provo, she realized her mission changed her and her view of soccer.

“My mission affected my reactions to things,” Jefferson said. “I used to cry after every loss or I’d get super mad. Now it’s centered me and given me a bigger picture, especially my emotions.”

Jefferson starts for the Cougars as the outside right-back.

Johnson served in Omaha, Nebraska, on her mission. She returned in June 2016 and said her mission reinforced her beliefs.

“I learned how to live a Christ-centered life with Him as my anchor,” Johnson said. “Before my mission I was just kind of coasting.”

Johnson had just four weeks to get ready for the Cougars’ season once she got home. She was worried about her rusty soccer skills, but realized they came back to her quickly. She said her mission also gave her a mental edge.

“I used to be prone to getting worked up about things and panicking in tight situations,” Johnson said. “Now my mental game is really confident and relaxed. I’m finding myself comfortable with things I used to not be.”

Johnson is a junior and is redshirting this season.

The BYU women’s soccer team is currently ranked No. 4 in the nation and owns a 7-1 record. The Cougars have out-scored opponents 20-5 in their last six games.

While these players love their sport, they didn’t mince words when asked if they’d leave it again.

“My mission gave me something more than soccer gave me,” Jefferson said. “The things you learn on a mission, you could never get from soccer.”

Johnson echoed Jefferson’s sentiments.

“One-hundred percent,” Johnson said when asked if it was worth it. “Serving a mission was worth leaving soccer for. Serving a mission has already made me a better soccer player than I ever was.”

The Cougars begin West Coast Conference play on Sept. 29.

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