PROVO -- No one is more surprised that Mari Burningham Carpenter plays volleyball and basketball for BYU than, well, Mari Burningham Carpenter.
That she's competing in two sports is not the surprise. Being a Cougar, though, has been somewhat of a shock to her system.The Logan native was heavily recruited four years ago out of Sky View High School, where she was an all-state volleyball and basketball star. Carpenter, in fact, was the Deseret News prep volleyball MVP in 1994. Naturally, BYU was among the myriad of schools that sought her services, but she barely acknowledged the efforts of Cougar coaches.
Instead, she signed a letter of intent with one of the most glamorous programs in the country, UCLA. And that's where she began an unusual odyssey that eventually, and unexpectedly, led her to Cougarville.
"I grew up anti-BYU because of my parents. I decided against BYU at the start," Carpenter remembered. "I had to put on my humble hat to come down here. I was happy (BYU) would let me come. They accepted me and I felt welcome from the get-go."
What happened to her between Los Angeles and Provo, including a stop in Rexburg, Idaho, and, before that, a much briefer stop at the University of Utah, was sometimes thrilling, sometimes painful but always educational. The 6-foot-4 junior learned plenty along the way.
The saga began during her storied high school career. College coaches knew there was something about Mari. Her athletic ability and dominance attracted droves of recruiters. She played with the U.S. Youth National Team between her junior and senior years.
Carpenter made it clear to college coaches that she wouldn't play one sport without the other. "A lot of schools told me to decide on one, but later they told me I could play both," she said. "I was adamant. Everyone told me it was impossible. I don't like to be told I can't do something."
She ended up playing volleyball and basketball for the Bruins. Though things didn't work out at UCLA as planned, she doesn't regret the decision to go to L.A. "I felt it was right," she explained.
Carpenter did become disenchanted, though. Not that her one-year stint with the Bruins was a disaster. As a volleyball player, she was an All-Pac 10 freshman team honorable mention selection. But it was difficult for her to be so far from home and she felt her classes were too large and impersonal. Further, she said she received inadequate medical attention for a herniated disc in her back, an injury she originally sustained in high school and reaggravated at UCLA.
Having bid farewell to the Bruins, she seriously looked into attending Utah (BYU's opponent Saturday afternoon in Provo), a school that had fiercely recruited her out of Sky View. Carpenter committed to play volleyball and basketball for the Utes, only to change her mind later. "I didn't feel good about it in my heart," she said. "I was miserable."
The awkward breakup still bothers her. "I feel bad about what I did to them," she said. "I have nothing against them. There was no ill-will against Utah. I had to do what was best for me. I had been doing things for other people and it didn't get me anywhere."
Which is not to say she didn't GO anywhere. She packed her bags and headed for Ricks Junior College. After playing volleyball one week, she reinjured her back and underwent surgery, causing her to miss the season.
A year later, she returned and decided to concentrate on one sport -- volleyball. The result? Carpenter posted a stellar year in 1997, leading the NJCAA in kills per game per game (5.7) and was named first team NJCAA All-America. And, more importantly, she caught the eye of a student assistant coach named Nathan Carpenter. The couple later married.
Still, venturing to BYU, which has been a haven to numerous Ricks athletes over the years, didn't seem to be an option. Not until Nathan decided to matriculate to BYU. Though she is LDS, "I didn't know anything about the school, other than it was a church school," she said.
Ricks volleyball coach Joann Reeves called BYU volleyball coach Elaine Michaelis on Burningham Carpenter's behalf. Michaelis said she didn't have a volleyball scholarship available -- but BYU women's basketball coach Trent Shippen, who had coached at Ricks the previous year, did. Carpenter accepted the offer to enroll at BYU.
Still, going to Provo was not easy. "I told my friends, 'I'm not a Cougar, I'm just a player,' " she said. "But I am (a Cougar) now. I was hesitant at first, but that didn't last long. The school grows on you."
Her parents accepted the decision, too. "They saw I was happy," she said. "They come down to my games. They're crazy, crazy supporters."
This past fall, Carpenter earned All-WAC volleyball honors as an outside hitter on a squad that came one game away from a Final Four appearance.
Days after the volleyball season concluded, Carpenter joined the basketball team. Shippen is bringing her along slowly, as she's played sparingly in three games. It's the first time she has been involved in competitive basketball in three years.
Physically, it hasn't been a smooth transition. "Basketball is more brutally demanding," she said. "It's rough and aggressive. In volleyball, there's no body-to-body contact, no bodies pounding, no running back and forth."
"She needs more playing time and experience," Shippen said.
"She needs some conditioning, from a basketball standpoint. As time progresses, she can be a darkhorse for us."
Carpenter says her hoop teammates have accepted her and she feels comfortable with her role. But, clearly, she prefers volleyball. "I like basketball," she said. "I love volleyball."
What she neither likes nor loves, however, is the chronic discomfort in her back. "It's a constant pain. It's something I live with. It is something that never goes away," she said. "It's like breathing. It's always there. There are good days and bad days."
And, yes, she's well aware of the potentially serious consequences of playing in this condition. She knows her future health and ability to have children down the road are threatened.
But she doesn't sound like someone who is going to quit anytime soon.
"There's a short window where you get your chance to play," she said. "I don't like to be told I can't do things. I don't worry about it. I don't have nightmares about it. I just try not to think about it."
Nor will she be putting much thought into the history she's had with her team's upcoming opponent, Utah.
"I hurt them. They recruited me twice and I shafted them both times," Carpenter said. "But going to Ricks and BYU turned out for the best for me. I met my husband at Ricks and I played for the fifth-best volleyball team in the country (at BYU).
I'm a happy person now."
Happiness in Provo? There was a time, not long ago, when Mari Carpenter wouldn't have believed it.