Left, University of Utah lacrosse player/returned missionary Justus Peterson and his Utes teammates will be playing in the program’s first NCAA Championship tournament on May 13, 2023. Right, Utah’s Justus Peterson competes against rival Mercer on April 15, 2023. (Photos courtesy of University of Utah Athletics)
Lacrosse player/returned missionary Justus Peterson and his Utah Utes teammates making history with program’s first NCAA tournament berth
Missionary service in the Marshall Islands taught college lacrosse athlete invaluable lessons on teamwork and hard work.
By Jason Swensen
12 May 2023
Win or lose, Justus Peterson and his teammates on the University of Utah lacrosse team will leave South Bend, Indiana, on Saturday with plenty of priceless memories.
For the first time in the school’s young lacrosse history, Utah will be competing in the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Lacrosse Championship Tournament after winning the ASUN conference title. The Utes face highly-ranked Notre Dame in the tournament’s first round on Saturday, May 13, at 12:30 p.m. MT (The game will be televised on ESPNU).
The Utah/Notre Dame game will mark a historic moment for the Ute squad — and for Peterson, a returned missionary from Cottonwood Heights, Utah.
Playing in the NCAA tourney “is going to be amazing,” Peterson told Church Ball Magazine. “It’s something every kid dreams about since they were little. Everytime you watch the [NCAAs] on TV, you think, ‘Wow, I want that to be me someday’.”
Besides playing in college lacrosse's “Big Dance,” Peterson added he had always wanted to serve a full-time mission. He knew that stepping away from the sport he loved would exact a cost. Lacrosse is a highly technical sport demanding constant practice and refinement.
There was no guarantee that, following a two-year mission break, he would recover the skill set required of Division 1 college lacrosse players.
But for Peterson, serving a mission was an easy decision. “From the time I was young I had told myself I was going — and I never second-guessed that decision.
“I always looked up to my older brother [Bowen]. He went on a mission and I saw how much a mission changed his life.”
Soon after graduating from Utah’s Brighton High School, Peterson accepted a mission call to serve in the Marshall Islands — a small multi-island country in the Pacific.
Elder Justus Peterson, second from right, and fellow missionaries serving in the Marshall Islands. (Instagram photo)
Peterson had always enjoyed roughing it in the outdoors — but life on the remote Marshall Islands was still a tough adjustment. The day-to-day comforts and technology that he grew up with in the Salt Lake Valley were not to be found.
“It was so incredible and so eye-opening and so amazing and so tough in so many ways,’ he said.
Peterson was humbled by the day-to-day challenges facing the people that he served. And he learned the true meaning of work.
“I had always viewed work as something that you just do to acquire the things that you want to make life easier,” he said. “But being in the Marshall Islands, there's no option but to work. You have to do what you have to do every single day. It doesn't matter if you caught fish yesterday, because you might not have a refrigerator. So you have to catch fish today if you want to feed your family tonight.”
Peterson’s love for the people in his mission more than made up for any personal sacrifices and hardships.
“They are some of the most welcoming and loving people that I've ever had the privilege to meet,” he said.
The local culture’s emphasis on community and looking out for one another taught Peterson lifelong lessons about being a good teammate and working together for a common goal.
“Elder” Peterson was also uplifted by the Marshallese people’s deep faith and Christian convictions.
“It was such a blessing to teach them about Christ and the restored gospel that I know can bring so much happiness and eternal life to people.” he said. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity I had to teach the restored message of Jesus Christ to the people in the Marshall Islands.”
An RM’s return to the lacrosse field
After returning home from his mission, Peterson reacquainted himself with lacrosse sticks, cardio sessions and the weight room. It took him about six months to regain his fitness. Rediscovering the confidence needed to compete on a Division 1 level was more challenging. But after about a year of hard work, he knew he belonged in a Ute uniform.
Playing in the midfield, Peterson has been part of a 2023 squad that has gone 12-4 — and undefeated in conference play.
Early in the season, the Utes took their lumps against nationally ranked programs such as Johns Hopkins and Rutgers. But Peterson said those games gave the team the confidence it needs to compete against quality teams such as Saturday’s NCAA tournament opponent, #2-ranked Notre Dame.
Returned missionary Justus Peterson plays midfield for the 2023 NCAA tournament-bound University of Utah lacrosse team. (Photo courtesy of University of Utah Athletics)
“We practice hard every day so that when these big moments — these big games — come, we can settle down, calm the nerves and navigate our way through,” he said.
Collectively, the 2023 Utes were determined to win their conference — and then make a deep run through their maiden NCAA Championship tournament, according to Peterson. “Our goal since last fall has been to get to Memorial Day weekend.”
Peterson’s home state of Utah is more than 5,000 miles away from his mission land in the Marshall Islands. But he remains a representative of his faith. As one of the few Latter-day Saints on the squad, he often answers questions and clears up misconceptions about the Church.
“I’m so grateful for my teammates…. They really respect what I believe in,” he said. “They are my brothers.”
Several of Peterson’s teammates have accepted his invitations to Sunday church services. “And it’s been great. It’s been a true blessing to be able to continue to keep that happiness that comes from sharing the gospel.”
A business major studying global supply chain, Peterson is exploring business opportunities following graduation. He is also considering a career as a commercial airline pilot.
“I’m excited for whatever opportunities might come — whether that’s through flight school or the business world.”