How BYU’s returning men’s basketball missionaries are adjusting to life in Provo

Dallin Hall, Richie Saunders, Tanner Toolson and Tanner Hayhurst bonded over shared experiences.

(Madi Allphin/BYU Athletics) BYU freshman Dallin Hall tries a jumpshot during men’s basketball practice.

The BYU men’s basketball team only brought back six of their players from last year’s team. Alex Barcello graduated and many others left through the transfer portal.

So the Cougars need to bring in several new faces for the 2022-23 season, the last before BYU Athletics joins the Big 12. But they’ll at least have some familiarity with a few of the new guys.

Three previously Cougars scholarship players returned this summer from their two-year assignments with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Dallin Hall, Richie Saunders and Tanner Toolson returned armed with new experiences and many lessons from their time away from home and basketball.

“Best two years of my life so far,” Hall said.

The three players had to serve missions all over the world. But the COVID-19 pandemic has caused some locations to be moved.

Hall was originally called up to the Philippines, but served in Fresno, California. Saunders was called to Africa, but went to Seattle. Toolson went to his original destination of Jacksonville, Florida.

Some think that because mission athletes come back two years older, they have some sort of advantage. Others disagree.

(Madi Allphin/BYU Athletics) BYU freshman Richie Saunders prepares for a shot during men’s basketball practice.

The three male basketball players, however, prove that returning missionaries have it much harder than regular recruits. Not only do they have to adjust to life in the real world, but they also have to get back into basketball shape after two years of not playing at all.

Hall, Saunders and Toolson tried to say in some semblance of athletic form while they were away. The most regimented was Saunders, who got up at 5:30 a.m. every morning to lift weights and practice shooting at a nearby gym before the official start of his day of missionary work.

But once Saunders returned to Provo and rejoined his teammates, he found himself in trouble.

“I really tried hard in my mission to make it a smoother transition, but still,” Saunders said. “I think my good idol was Tyler Haws. What he said while I was talking to him was, ‘Your mind knows what to do, but your body doesn’t.’

Toolson said he was lucky because, throughout his mission, he participated in sports evenings on Wednesdays or Saturdays. When he hooped, he showed a bit, but also showed some rust.

“I was usually the best player in the gym,” said Toolson, who suffered a midfoot sprain during his mission after someone landed on him. “It was fun because everyone was super frustrated when I was winning. But there were definitely times when I was very humbled and couldn’t do things that I could do six months before.

(Madi Allphin/BYU Athletics) BYU freshman Tanner Toolson shoots a float during men’s basketball practice.

Hall and Toolson are roommates with Tanner Hayhurst, another returned missionary who served in New Orleans and signed with the Cougars as a favorite extra. These four players, including Saunders, began to bond fairly quickly as soon as they all returned from their missions due to their shared experiences.

“Some of my favorite nights have just been kind of a conversation with Tanner [Hayhurst] and Dallin… about old mission stories,” Toolson said.

“I think it helps a lot just to create camaraderie because we’re all in this together,” Hall added. “Additionally, we are all able to hold each other accountable on and off the pitch with the things we have learned from our mission. It’s really awesome.

BYU began official workouts in late September. During a BYUtv broadcast of one of the sessions, guard Trevin Knell revealed he had undergone shoulder surgery and would be out for several months.

Coach Mark Pope said after that training that Knell’s injury would mean Hall and Saunders in particular would likely have to contribute sooner than initially thought.

“It puts a lot of pressure on these guys, but they’re ready,” Pope said.

Editor’s note • This story is only available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Please support local journalism.

About Joyce Hill

Check Also

In Case You Missed It: President Oaks on the ‘Forgotten Man’ Painting, Plus 8 More Stories

During the week of November 6-12, President Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First …