Almost a third of the players on Brigham Young University’s No. 1-ranked women’s soccer team are returned missionaries — including several key contributors. (Photo courtesy of BYU Photo)
BYU’s #1-ranked women’s soccer team features double-digit number of returned missionaries
Several RMs playing key roles for America’s top-ranked women’s college soccer squad.
By Jason Swensen
7 Sept 2023
Latter-day Saint sports fans, here are a couple of recent, history-making facts worth remembering:
Fact 1 - For the first time in program history, the Church-sponsored Brigham Young University women’s soccer team is ranked No. 1 in the nation — a milestone realized earlier this week in the United Soccer Coaches Poll.
Fact 2 - Almost a third of the players competing for the country’s top-ranked NCAA women’s soccer team are returned missionaries. Again, a historic first for a No. 1-ranked women’s squad.
The first fact has aptly snagged headlines across the college soccer community and beyond. The second, while not as immediately prominent, could be argued is equally impressive as the first.
BYU coach Jennifer Rockwood could field a line-up consisting almost entirely of RMs. Ten of her current players have, at one point, stepped away from college soccer to serve full-time missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Counted among the BYU RMs are several of the Cougars key players — including All-American candidate Olivia Wade-Katoa and starting goalkeeper Savanna Empey-Mason. The RMs/Cougar players have served in missions dotted across several continents. No surprise, several have picked-up language skills such as Spanish and Portuguese.
When BYU’s soccer team recently celebrated the school’s Latino community, Wade-Katoa tweeted a welcome message in her mission language of Spanish.
Male returned missionaries participating in Division 1 athletics at BYU and other schools have been common for decades.
But rostering large numbers of female RMs/college athletes is still a fairly new phenomena. The Church’s 2012 revised “minimum-age” policy for sister missionaries influenced the decisions of many Latter-day Saint female athletes to serve missions.
Since the minimum-age missionary changes were announced a little over a decade ago, several key players at BYU (and other NCAA schools) have interrupted their playing careers to serve missions.
Notable former college soccer players who served missions include BYU’s Rachel Boaz, Paige Hunt Barker, Alyssa Jefferson, Rachel Lyman, Kayci Griffin and the University of Utah’s Eden Jacobsen. Utah Valley University’s Jenna Shepherd Gremillion — the 2022 WAC Defensive Player of the Year — served a mission in Washington.
BYU freshman goalkeeper Lynette Hernaez told Church Ball Magazine that having a cadre of teammates that can "speak the return missionary language" has been a big help as she transitions back to D1 competition.
"Both [fellow RMs] Olivia and Savanna were amazing when I first got back with the team," said Hernaez. "They would check up on me, see how I was doing and ask if I needed anything."
Veteran Cougar goalkeeper/RM Empey-Mason knew all about the "keeper rust" that her young teammate was trying to shake weeks after returning from full-time missionary service.
"Savanna reassured me that she had felt the exact same things," said Hernaez. "She promised me that my skills would return. To hear her testimony about her returning home helped me so much."
Now Hernaez finds herself lifting and reassuring BYU teammates who returned from their missionary service months after her own. "We are all working with each other and helping each other."
Their unifying message: You got this.
Returned missionaries competing for the No. 1-ranked BYU Cougars:
Lytiana Akinaka, forward/midfielder — Colorado Denver Mission.
Haven Empey, goalkeeper — Washington Seattle Mission.
Savanna Empey-Mason, goalkeeper — New Zealand Hamilton Mission.
Addie Gardner, forward — Cape Verde Praia Mission
Lynette Hernaez, goalkeeper — Utah Salt Lake City South Mission
Kelsey Hoopes, goalkeeper — Texas McAllen Mission
Josie Shepherd, midfielder — New Hampshire Manchester Mission
Caroline Stringfellow, forward/midfielder — Brazil São Paulo South Mission
Olivia Wade-Katoa, midfielder — Texas Houston South Mission
Jacey Wood, forward/midfielder — Texas Lubbock MIssion