Hey sports fans — quick — name a Division I college basketball program in Utah County that starts five returned missionaries, brings five more RMs off the bench and is led by a Mormon coach.
The answer may surprise you: Utah Valley University.
The Wolverines just might be the most missionary-centric program in college basketball history. There are probably ward basketball teams that roster fewer returned missionaries than UVU.
The school’s starting lineup includes guard Holton Hunsaker (Fiji Suva Mission); his backcourt mate, Keawe Enos (Mississippi Jackson Mission); center Ben Aird (Washington Spokane Mission); forward Mitch Bruneel (Philippines Cebu Mission); and forward Zach Nelson (Texas Lubbock Mission).
Off the bench are Hayes Garrity (Kentucky Louisville Mission); Cory Cardwell (Pennsylvania Philadelphia Mission); Brenden Evans (Mexico Mexico City South Mission); Taylor Brown (Brazil Belo Horizante Mission); and Eli Robison (Ukraine Donetsk Mission).
And directing the entire bunch is Coach Dick Hunsaker, a member himself.
“It’s a unique situation, but it’s been great,” Ben Aird said.
The 6-foot-9-inch senior and his teammates are enjoying a memorable season. The Wolverines are playing in their first year as a member of the Western Athletic Conference. They’ve done well. The Wolverines (18-10) lead the conference with two games left in the regular season.
A strong finish would assure UVU a high seed in the upcoming conference tournament in Las Vegas. If the Wolverines win the tournament, they would be assured of the school’s first appearance in the storied NCAA Tournament.
The team’s success — combined with the unusual number of returned missionaries — has made for an unforgettable season, said senior Holton.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he added. “We do share a lot of missionary stories with each other.”
Ben added that all his teammates, regardless of their respective religious backgrounds, “are all high character guys.”
Several of the returned missionaries interviewed by the Church News spoke of the impact missionary service continues to play in their lives. Two years away from competitive basketball, they said, won’t improve your jump shot or vertical leap — but each player agreed that their missions helped them mature and grow as a person and as an athlete.
Those missionary lessons have served them well both inside and outside the lines.
Keawe played regularly during his weekly preparation days in Mississippi. Sometimes he and his companion would join in neighborhood pick-up games to introduce themselves to potential investigators.
“The local people loved to see us play,” he said.
Rugby is the national sport of Fiji — but many of the island nation’s young people love basketball, said Holton. On two occasions, his mission president gave him permission to organize outdoor basketball camps. The camps helped the church make new friends in the community while strengthening the Latter-day Saint youth.
In Taylor Brown’s Brazilian mission, the elders and sisters were prohibited from playing sports of any kind. “Not even soccer,” he said, laughing.
“In my mission, it was all about the work and nothing else — and that was exactly what I needed,” he said.
Despite the two-year layoff, Taylor said he quickly recovered his fitness and basketball skills when he returned home.
The Wolverines are unusual in ways beyond their prolific missionary service. Several of the players are married and some have even started families.
“Our wives have all become good friends and get together to watch games on TV when we’re playing on the road,” said Keawe.
When the season ends in a few weeks a few of the senior players will move on to graduate school. Star center Ben hopes to play professionally. They will all remember the 2013-2014 season and their unusual, missionary-laden team.
“We feel like we are a family,” he said.