Mormon athletes must weigh taking a different path - East Valley Tribune: Ahwatukee Foothills

Mormon athletes must weigh taking a different path

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Posted: Monday, August 6, 2012 1:49 pm

Jordan Bachynski must have been quite the sight.

In the two years before he arrived at Arizona State, Bachynski put his college basketball ambitions on hold to serve a mission in Miami, Fla., for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

With the Sun Devils, he blends in among the game’s giants. On the court in Miami, he would stick out like a sore thumb.

Bachynski joined his fellow missionaries for pickup basketball on Mondays, and at 7-foot-2 with NBA potential, it’s safe to say he would always be the first pick when drawing up teams.

“It was fun,” Bachynski said, “but it wasn’t anything that would prepare me for college basketball.”

Bachynski’s two-year detour is typical for Latter-day Saints members, and East Valley high school juniors Jake Toolson (Highland) and Payton Dastrup (Mountain View) are choosing a similar path.

Toolson and Dastrup both plan to play college basketball for a season, but will then ship off to unknown destinations and focus almost solely on their missionary work for two years. Mountain Pointe and Desert Vista athletes have had to make similar decisions in the past, but none recently.

In an instant gratification world, it’s an atypical step back.

“There’s not really any way you can prepare for it,” Toolson said. “It’s just a thing I’ve always wanted to do. Ever since I was a little kid it was like, ‘I’m going to go on a mission when I turn 19.’ I’m not really worried about basketball on my mission. That’s not where I’m supposed to be (mentally) at that time.”

Bachynski could usually only squeeze in a pickup game once a month, and basketball may not be an option at all depending on where Toolson and Dastrup end up.

Jake’s brother, Connor, for instance, is in Nicaragua, where baseball reigns.

Even if there is a court nearby, it will take tremendous dedication to simply make time for practice.

“On the mission you probably have to get up at 6:30 a.m., so I’d need to get up at 4:30 or 5 just to get up some shots and work out,” Dastrup said.

Both players have bright futures on the hardwood.

Dastrup is ranked as one of the nation’s top centers among current high school juniors with offers from Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State, Virginia and Southern California, among others. Toolson, a small forward, is one of the best shooters in Arizona and whose offers include Arizona State and Boston College.

The pair has told schools recruiting them that they have every intention of serving the mission. Payton Dastrup’s father, David, said the declaration has been met with some resistance.

“When they coach against (Brigham Young) the mission is an advantage to (the Cougars),” David Dastrup said. “Yet when they recruit LDS kids who want to serve a mission, they aren’t as open or embracing of the process. So you scratch your head over that, thinking, ‘Wait a minute, you can’t have it both ways.’”

Payton said a coach’s understanding of his personal beliefs will be an important part of him choosing a school.

“If they don’t support the mission, maybe in a way they’re not giving me (full support),” he said.

When Bachynski returned from Miami, he had missed three years of organized basketball because an ankle injury cost him the season before he left.

It didn’t take long to realize he had fallen behind.

“It was hard to get the timing back,” Bachynski said. “That was the biggest thing for me. There would be a play on the court and I’d know what I needed to do, but my body would be a half-second late.”

Toolson has resigned himself to that fate.

“It’s going to be rough coming back,” Toolson said. “I’m not expecting to be the same player I was before I left on my mission.”

But the time away can pay dividends.

It’s common practice for many missionaries with athletic futures to leave in May, immediately after school ends, so they can return in the same month two years later and have time to acclimate for the following season.

By that time, they are 21 years old with a wealth of life experience, while still only a freshman or sophomore in class standing.

“Going on the mission gave my body time to mature and my mind time to mature,” Bachynski said. “When I came to college, it wasn’t an eye-opening experience being on my own. I’ve known a bunch of guys that have come to college and gone crazy because they don’t know how to be alone and they don’t know how to deal with the responsibility. They basically lose their first year of college because they’re not prepared for it.”

In hindsight, Bachynski saw the mission as a net positive, but he knows there can be trepidations before a player leaves.

In a win-now culture, college coaches take a risk when recruiting a player who will be gone for two seasons. Some may get fired within that time span, and the players can also decide to transfer schools without penalty after returning.

For Toolson and Dastrup, leaving for two years can feel like forever, especially if they excel as freshmen.

But Bachynski said it’s a decision that goes beyond the hoop ramifications.

“Going on a mission is not an easy thing,” Bachynski said. “It’s not just putting basketball on hold, it’s putting life on hold. We don’t get to date. I only got to call my parents four times over two years. But you learn life lessons that are invaluable and you meet people that change your life. Leaving basketball — and I love the sport — was not an easy thing to do, but I wouldn’t trade my mission experiences for anything.”

• Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at mheller@evtrib.com or (480) 898-6576.

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