BYU sophomore Robb Stowell. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
After starting 26-of-28 men’s volleyball matches his freshman year, Robb Stowell of San Juan Capistrano, Calif. is back from an LDS mission and better than ever.
A 6-foot-7 rightside hitter for the Cougars, Stowell led the team his freshman year (2007) in total kills with 342. He was also second on the team in kills per game with 3.64. But where has this 6-foot-7 rightside hitter been for the last two years? Answer: the Philippines Cebu LDS mission.
Stowell was recruited heavily by BYU, USC and Stanford and after much consideration, he chose to come to BYU.
“I went on recruiting trips to USC and here to BYU and I just loved the atmosphere here,” Stowell said. “We did a service project on my recruiting trip and I just felt a strong team bond.”
Stowell’s parents both attended BYU and were pleased that he chose BYU.
“We were really excited about it,” said Adrienne, Stowell’s mother. “The other two schools he was looking at were USC and Stanford but we felt like BYU was a perfect fit for him.”
Playing volleyball at BYU his freshman year turned out better than expected, being able to contribute to the team in every match of the 2007 season. Because other players redshirted or became injured, Stowell had the opportunity to have a lot more playing time.
He describes the first home match of the 2007 season against UCLA as the match that sticks out to him the most during his freshman season.
“It was a packed Smith Fieldhouse and I had one of my best games ever,” said Stowell. “Everyone was surprised by my performance, including myself, but that just got me excited to play for the rest of the season.”
Although Stowell had a phenomenal freshman year, he made the decision to take a break from volleyball and serve a two-year full-time volunteer mission to Cebu, Philippines for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, bringing his own copy of the UCLA game with him to watch occasionally.
He entered the Provo, Utah Missionary Training Center on Aug. 29, 2007 to spend nine weeks learning the Cebuano language and lessons he would teach for the next 24 months.
Speaking Cebuano and serving in a total of six areas with 12 different companions in many rural areas and a few cities, Stowell had the time of his life with the Filipino people.
Although the weather was very hot and wet, the people were usually at least 16 inches shorter than him, he had to pump water in one of his areas and had to take cold bucket showers daily, Stowell describes his time in the Philippines as “incredible.”
“The people are so loving, happy and cheerful,” he said. “I attribute a lot of who I am today because of my mission. The Filipinos are never negative or in a bad mood. They could have the worst thing happen to them and they still find a way to joke around and make it good.”
Ingrown toenails seemed to be the least of his worries as he worked hard to bring people to knowledge of what he cherished and knew to be true: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Stowell served in Siaton, Lilo-an, Bogo, Talisay, Lamac and Cortes, having different challenges and experiences in each area.
His first area, Siaton, was a very large, beautiful, rural area with lots of rice patties. With villages in the mountains and down by the beach, he not only fell in love with the scenary, but the people around him. He loved the members and enjoyed much success while serving with a very diligent companion.
The first day he was in Siaton, he and his companion took a bus to the area and immediately went to a Catholic funeral. He was asked to dedicate the grave and describes it as a very strange experience.
“I didn’t know the language or anything, but they still asked me to dedicate the grave,” Stowell said. “They were probably all thinking, ‘Who is this white guy?’ It was really weird.”
Although he started out his mission with a different experience, he soon was lost in missionary work, helping people come to a knowledge of something he cherished dearly.
One of the most fulfilling experiences he had in Siaton was when he and his companion met Brother Banggala. Living in a 10x15 foot shack of corrugated metal, Banggala struggled to provide for his four daughters by himself after having his wife pass away.
“We taught him the first couple lessons and he was really quiet and shy and wouldn’t answer any of our questions and I was thinking that it wasn’t worth it to keep teaching him,” said Stowell. “One day we went to his house, thinking about telling him we were going to stop coming, but when we started talking, we found out that his wife had died.”
After hearing that sad news, Stowell and his companion immediately thought to teach about how they believe families can be together forever and how he would be able to see his wife again.
“When we told him that we knew that he could see his wife again, his eyes lit up and he got off his chair and scooted really close to us and wanted to know more,” he said. “From that point on, he loved every lesson we had. He and his daughters were always the first ones at church – being there early to set up chairs. He just fell in love with the church. Still to this day I talk to my friends that are serving there and they tell me that he is still the first one at church and his little girls are there in little white dresses.”
After leaving his first area where he spent 24 weeks, Stowell spent the next 12 weeks in Lilo-an, which was more of a city area, with one of his favorite companions, Elder Deloso.
“Elder Deloso was humble, smart, had great teaching skills and always wanted to work hard and get better,” said Stowell. “We worked really well together and we worked so hard all the time. There had been several unfocused missionaries there before us so we were eager to make up lost time.”
An experience Deloso and Stowell had together was one of the most memorable stories of his mission. They were interested in doing smart finding: where they prayed about which barangay (village) to knock doors and then to go to that barangay and ask for a list of all the families who had a recent birth or death.
After visiting many houses and exhausting all of its options without success, the companionship decided to try one last street. After knocking all the houses Stowell thought, “I’m hungry and no one is accepting us, let’s just go,” while Deloso said, “No, let’s try this house.”
They were let into the house where they found a very low ceiling and a family of seven. The family had been praying to find a church to attend and about gave up around the time they knocked on the door.
Stowell was thankful to his companion for being in tune with the spirit and going to one last house because after many lessons, lots of answered questions and much in-depth explaining, the mom, dad and two of the kids were baptized.
“The dad was really hard-headed and he wanted to know if it was true, logically,” said Stowell. “But once they realized that they had been receiving answers to their prayers, it all came together. They were such an incredible, humble family.”
After leaving Lilo-an, Stowell moved to Bogo for 18 weeks, a place he described as a very tough area. Having a love-hate relationship with the members caused him to learn patience to get through the hard times.
Next he traveled to Talisay for another 18 weeks, the first major city he served in. One of the first church congregations established in the Philippines was in Talisay and he describes it as an area with a lot of history.
Lamac was the next area he served in for a total of 18 weeks, describing this area as one of the most remote areas on the planet.
“It was in the middle of nowhere,” said Stowell. “You would drive 30 minutes to a very small village and then you would take a motorcycle for another 30 minutes up and over a mountain into a valley where the houses are super spread out.”
Out in the middle of nowhere, Stowell was with his only American companion who was also very tall at 6-foot-6.
“I think my mission president thought it would be funny to send me and him out to this place where people had never seen Americans,” said Stowell. “There would be two huge white guys walking around and we’d come up a hill and people would see us and grown men and women would literally scream and run away from us. We would go after them and say, ‘Don’t run! We speak your language!’”
Just as seeing two very tall, white Americans in a remote area of the Philippines was strange to the villagers, Stowell described the area having it’s own strange quirks.
“There was absolutely nothing there except crazy colts and weird chanting,” he said. “Some of the weirdest stuff I have ever experienced in my life was there.”
While not trying to get “trunky” as missionaries call becoming unfocused and just wanting pack up their suitcase or trunk to come home – Stowell spent his last nine weeks in the area of Cortes. He says that not much happened although he worked as hard as he could.
Reflecting on his experience in the mission field, Stowell looks back on those 24 months as some of the best of his life and he is grateful for all the things he learned.
“I learned to have a great attitude about everything,” he said. “Any one of my friends that you talk to would say that my attitude has changed dramatically. Before I used to base my attitude on how certain circumstances made me feel – if things weren’t going well or I had hard classes or drama in my life, I would kind of be in a bad mood – now I am just always happy and have a good attitude. I am really happy my mission and the Filipino people taught me that.”
He also describes how his love of the scriptures grew. He now loves to study and have deep doctrinal conversations, as well as gain a deeper appreciation for his parents and how much they know and how much they sacrificed for him.
“I think his mission gave him a real positive outlook on life,” said Adrienne. “He has a can-do attitude of optimism. He’s happy about life and has a deeper appreciation for people.”
“His attitude has really changed,” said BYU head coach Shawn Patchell. “His ability to understand his weaknesses and make them better has changed and now he is very willing to adapt to circumstances and find his niche on the volleyball court. He has really grown up on his mission and added many important leadership qualities to help his team out.”
Although he learned much and grew leaps and bounds spiritually, his physical leap was hurting when he came back home on Aug. 20, 2009.
“The joke is that I came off the airplane and I had a 4-inch vertical,” he said. “It was so bad. I knew I was going to be out of shape, but I didn’t think I would be that out of shape.”
Coming back was one of the hardest times of Stowell’s life. From the moment he woke up to the moment he went to sleep he was sore, tired and achy.
“I have never had the feeling that I couldn’t just go out and run and play any sport that I wanted to,” Stowell said.
Not only did he notice how out of shape he was, but so did his coach.
“I remember how high he was jumping his freshman year, and he was probably only jumping an eighth of how high he was before,” said Patchell. “That tells me that he served a great mission. But I am confident he will continue to improve. Right now he is just scratching the surface of his potential and we are very excited to see where he will end up.”
Stowell feels like it took him until about December until he started to get in the groove of playing again. But now that he is into the rigorous volleyball season he hopes to contribute as much as he can to his team, his No. 1 goal being a national championship.
“There are a lot of seniors on this team that deserve to win a national championship and I want to do the best I can to make that happen,” Stowell said. “Everything else is just an appendage of that: of how hard we are going to work and train. My personal goal is to be an emotional leader on the court and make big plays when big plays are needed.”
After serving an honorable mission for his church, Stowell is excited to be back.
“When I would get out the DVD of the UCLA game while I was on my mission I had this vision of coming back and playing,” he said. “I love playing. I love being out here with the fans and I love traveling and being with the team and the camaraderie and the brotherhood that we have.”
Stowell also loves and is grateful that his parents go to every single game. They travel to all the games in California, Utah and even Hawaii.
“We are groupies for four months and it’s very fun,” said Adrienne. “Robbie’s older brother Michael played basketball for Utah State and BYU-Hawaii and his four years went very fast so we decided to try out best to go to all of Robbie’s volleyball games. We love it.”
Already matching his career high in kills this season with 22, Stowell proves to be an important asset to the Cougar squad for his sophomore season. The next two and a half years he will continue to improve and help BYU achieve greatness.
“I have tried to apply what I learned in the mission field here with the team” Stowell said. “Whenever things aren’t going well for my teammates, I just try to always be happy and try to bring a smile to someone’s face. I’m always trying to crack a joke and keep the team light and cheerful because I think we play better that way.”