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For UW’s Jason McManamen, You Can Go Home Again

November 8, 2016
man in gold basketball uniform waving with people behind him
UW senior basketball player Jason McManamen acknowledges his hometown crowd in Torrington last week when the Cowboys played Chadron State College in an exhibition game at Eastern Wyoming College. (UW Photo)

Jason McManamen was out of his comfort zone standing in two different gymnasiums full of adoring fans in his hometown.

A senior guard who will be counted on this season to be the unquestionable leader for the University of Wyoming Cowboys men’s basketball team isn’t supposed to be so nervous. He’s supposed to be a steady presence, leading, offering veteran leadership on the floor, while also applying that deadly outside shooting that can demoralize an opposing team.

But, here was the 6-foot-5 senior guard, towering over a gymnasium full of adoring third- through fifth-graders at Trail Elementary School in Torrington last week. The Cowboys were in the community to open the exhibition season at Eastern Wyoming College (EWC) against Chadron State College.

McManamen was home. He grew up in this agricultural community, first arriving as a sixth-grader.

Each year, UW’s athletics programs conduct outreach programs, bringing their respective teams out into various Wyoming communities. What makes it even more special is when a Wyoming native happens to be playing on one of those UW teams.

“Being in Jason’s hometown and having the opportunity to come here and play the game, I think the fans, the love, not only for Jason, but for Cowboy basketball, is really great,” says Allen Edwards, UW’s first-year coach.

The UW team opened with some shooting drills to the squeals of the children who used their counting skills to keep tabs on how many baskets were made. Later, the players rebounded shots taken by the children, towering over each, while encouraging them.

But, the children were there for one reason: to see one of their own. McManamen quietly addressed the students, telling them to find something they love and follow through with it.

Edwards says it’s important to reach young students at that age, and hometown athletes like McManamen serve as good role models.

McManamen reflected on his small-town Wyoming upbringing.

“I had some great coaches and great teachers,” he says about going back home. “Everyone who has supported me throughout my high school career, and now at UW, has been great.”

Hard to believe that he wasn’t a highly recruited high school player, even though he was named Wyoming’s Gatorade Player of the Year his senior season.

“I think a lot of people in the community really believed that I could play somewhere like the University of Wyoming,” he says.

He came to UW for summer basketball camps as a high school player, and going into his senior year, then-UW head Coach Larry Shyatt offered him a scholarship. At the time, it was his only Division I offer.

“This is where I wanted to go the whole time,” he says matter-of-factly. “It was just a dream come true to come play for the Pokes.”

This from a small-town Wyoming kid who played in a lower Wyoming classification.

“It definitely was a huge transition for me going from Class 3A basketball in Wyoming to Division I, but I always just tried to have the mindset that I was going to get better each year, especially my second year when I redshirted,” he says. “When I sat out that year, the coaches really helped me work on my game and helped to expand my game. I just tried to get better and better, shooting, ball handling and being a better teammate.”

His Family Life

man leaping over basketball players with ball in hands

Jason McManamen soars for a reverse layup in UW’s exhibition game against Chadron State College at Eastern Wyoming College. McManamen returned to his hometown in Torrington, the site where he won two state titles for the Blazers. (UW Photo)

How McManamen went from the small agricultural town in eastern Wyoming near the Nebraska border to Division I basketball can be attributed to a close-knit family, rooted in education.

He was born 22 years ago in Powell and spent his early years in another agricultural community just 22 miles east in Big Horn County: Lovell, an even smaller town than Torrington, population 2,300.

His grandparents, Verle and Marilyn Punke, first lived in Lovell, with Verle teaching science classes at Lovell High School. The Punkes raised three children, Michael, Amy and Tim, in the Rose City, but the family later moved to Torrington, where Verle started teaching in that community. Later, Jason’s parents, Mike, who was raised in Gillette, and Amy, secured teaching jobs in Lovell, where their three children started their early lives. Jason has a sister, Dani, a freshman basketball player for Northwest College in Powell, and younger brother, Ryan, a Laramie High School junior, as the McManamens now teach in the Albany County School District.

Amy can remember exactly when she and Mike realized that Jason was destined to becoming a competitive player: as a tow-headed youngster playing board games with his family in what was supposed to be fun time.

“Jason has always been super competitive. Even when we played games like ‘Candyland’ or ‘Sorry,’ he was mad if he didn’t win,” Amy says, smiling. “It just drove us nuts when he was little, but I think that trait has served him well because he doesn’t like to lose, and he’ll do anything he can to help his team win.”

Mike mentions he could see the potential on the court when Jason and a pair of Sheridan basketball players won a national 3-on-3 basketball title in Florida. As a high school player for the Torrington Blazers, Jason played for two state championship teams his sophomore and senior years.

“Jason has always loved the game. I knew he would be playing after high school, and we just kind of hoped that he would be able to play Division I,” Mike says. “But, this is beyond our wildest, wildest dreams that he would play for UW.”

Amy adds that the past five years have been “surreal for me.”

“I can’t believe that I really get to watch him do something that he loves,” she says. “The Cowboy family is amazing. They have been amazing to Mike and me. They’ve made Jason into the person he is and the player he is, and it’s been such a positive experience for our family. It makes me very proud.”

But, what they are proudest of is that Jason has turned into a good role model for his siblings. And being from a family of educators, Amy proudly mentions that Jason, last spring, received a B.S. degree in business management and is a candidate for a second bachelor’s degree in marketing next semester.

Coming Back Home

An hour before tip-off, Torrington fans who watched a young McManamen grow as a hometown star for the Blazers patiently stood outside the Verl Petsch Jr. Activities Center Student Center waiting for the doors to open. He had never competitively played on this court until that night.

When game time arrived, fans politely clapped for the first four Cowboys to be introduced. When it was time for McManamen’s name to be called, the announcer’s voice was drowned out by the deafening roar of the more than 1,100 fans in attendance.

He left the bench, high-fiving his teammates as he and the other four starters circled for a last-minute pep talk. He was all business. Edwards says that folks don’t realize that his top three-point shooter is actually a “quiet guy.”

The crowd cheered each time McManamen touched the ball and went ballistic when he scored his first basket just inside the top of the key at the 17:53 mark. He had a solid game, not spectacular, but scored a business-like 15 points, the most by any player on the night.

What he brings is a veteran leadership, getting his teammates involved, while scrapping for any loose balls and working his way in closer for any rebound on both ends of the floor.

This is his team. And he knows it. He wants to be a good teammate, just as he learned from two UW superstars: Larry Nance Jr. and Josh Adams. He is the Pokes’ leading returning scorer, averaging 14 points per game last season.

“I hope my teammates look up to me as a leader,” he says. “I’m stepping into that role after being led by guys like Larry and Josh. I learned a lot from them, and I hope I give that leadership to those guys below me.”

After the game, Edwards had McManamen address his hometown crowd -- another moment that left him a bit uneased, especially because of the adoring attention.

“He actually got out of his comfort zone a couple of times when he had to speak in front of the kids earlier in the day at the elementary school, and then when he got on the loudspeaker here to thank the fans. That’s not something he normally does,” Edwards says. “But, I think long-term that helps him. He’s a young man that whatever he sets his heart on, and goes after, he’ll be able to achieve.”

That one last moment in a hushed EWC gymnasium as his family, friends and hometown fans watched, McManamen thanked them for supporting him, thanked them all for coming to the game and closed with, “It was awesome to come back home and play. I can’t thank you enough.”

He proved that you can come home.

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