CENTENNIAL — We'll get to Hunter Maldonado the basketball player in a minute, but let's first talk about Hunter Maldonado the man.
Not the kid, the man.
His high school career ended Wednesday. It came to a full stop when Eaglecrest, the No. 1 seed in the Class 5A state tournament, blitzed Maldonado and Vista Ridge, 55-37, inside a madhouse of a gymnasium the Raptors call "the Nest." And when Maldonado stepped out of the locker room — a teary-eyed 35 minutes after the loss — he did a very manly thing. He hugged each of the team's equipment managers and said thank you. That's it. Just thank you.
So here's one from the rest of us Colorado high school sports fans: Thank you, Hunter. You, sir, are one of the classiest prep basketball stars to roll through the Pikes Peak region.
"In my 31 years," Vista Ridge's Joe Hites said after the game, "Hunter is the best player I've had the opportunity to coach. But Hunter the person is even better than Hunter the player."
Then the coach hit me with this one, which is bigger and better than the 24 points Maldonado poured through the hoop in his final game: "He's going to be the most incredible husband and father someday. There's nothing in life he can't do."
Does it get any better than that?
I wanted to talk to Maldonado about the University of Wyoming. That's where he's going next, to play basketball on a full-ride scholarship for Pokes coach Allen Edwards. He wouldn't let me.
"All I can think about right now is how lucky I've been here (at Vista Ridge)," he said. "I'm just going to miss these guys. We had a special group, a special coach. I loved it."
The final locker room of a high school career is the most difficult locker room a kid can experience. Good thing Hunter's a full-grown man. Vista Ridge finished 19-7 and, as he put it, "accomplished every single goal we set out to accomplish." If playing with class was another, they accomplished that one, too, even as Eaglecrest outmanned Vista Ridge by a solid margin. There was a block-charge foul call that could've gone either way. The call went against Maldonado, and the Vista Ridge portion of the crowd didn't agree with that opinion. But his reaction spoke volumes about the caliber of man that Wyoming is adding to its roster.
"Officials are people, too," Maldonado said. "They're doing their best, just like us."
OK, so about Hunter Maldonado the basketball player. His 24 points arrived in every way you can score. Five 3-pointers, including a pair from 3-4 feet beyond the NBA line. One tomahawk slam dunk that had the student section looking at each other like, "You see that?" A couple of layups, couple of free throws, and never an inkling of emotion, positive or negative.
"I love that about him," Wyoming coach Edwards told me Wednesday. "Just level-headed."
Maldonado was the first prospect that Wyoming offered in its 2017 recruiting class. There should be officers waiting at the border, because the Pokes stole a good one from the state of Colorado. Edwards was an assistant coach at VCU when VCU upset Duke in the NCAA Tournament in 2007. Maldonado reminds me of one of those VCU guys — right around 6-foot-6, relentless on defense and just a pain in the you-know-what to play against for 40 minutes. Credit UW assistant coach Jeremy Shyatt for his dogged work in the recruitment of Maldonado. Here's a hunch that when Hunter graduates from Wyoming, Colorado State and the rest of the Mountain West are going to be ecstatic he's gone but also respect the heck out of his time there.
"I like big guards. We want to get big, athletic guards. That's what Hunter is," Edwards said. "The one thing I like about Hunter is he can run all day. He's never tired. With how we want to play at Wyoming — getting up and down the floor, playing fast — he fits us perfectly."
As he left the season's final locker room, Hites, the Vista Ridge coach, added one more thing: "We say 'I love you' from the heart. And I love that kid like a son."
On the other side of the door, that kid — that man — was busy thanking the team managers.