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The last time Rayes Gallegos played an organized basketball game on Utah soil March 7, 2009 he flashed the potential. The athleticism. The butter-soft jumpshot carefully crafted over time.
Gallegos walked off the E Center floor that night a Class 5A state champion with his teammates at West Jordan. The Jaguars defeated Lone Peak in what was considered a stunning upset.
Gallegos scored 22 points against his rival Tyler Haws. He made 8 of 15 shots, including four from 3-point range.
For Gallegos, the best was yet to come.
"He finally maximized his potential," West Jordan coach Scott Briggs would say.
Four years have passed since that memorable evening. Today, Gallegos is back in Utah, having finished up final exams at Nebraska just a few days earlier. He's sleeping until noon, eating home-cooked meals like a regular college student.
He's earned the right to relax. His junior season with the Cornhuskers has been nothing short of a breakout year. Gallegos averaged 12.5 points per game and was the second leading scorer on the team.
Gallegos led the Big 10 by playing 37.5 minutes per game. In a new system with a first-year coach in Tim Miles, Gallegos emerged as a captain. He will enter next season as one of the premier shooting guards in the conference.
"He'll be our only senior," Miles said. "He'll be the heart of the team, and we're going to depend on him as a leader."
The story of Rayes Gallegos if it continues on its current trajectory will have a happy ending. Today, he joins Washington's C.J. Wilcox as former instate guys who have gone on to become stars elsewhere. But the four years between now and his state title conquest were as bumpy as you can get for a college basketball player.
A 6-foot-2 guard, Gallegos had to endure little to no playing time for two years, and a redshirt in his third season. Not many athletes would wait that long to see the floor. Gallegos is playing for his second coach, in a second system. Doc Sadler recruited him, offered him a scholarship and signed him. He was fired a year ago.
It was a homesick Gallegos who almost transferred at the conclusion of his freshman season. He was all set to latch on at Weber State. Then he woke up one morning with an epiphany after a long talk with his mother, Maxine. For him, transferring would be akin to quitting, giving up.
Many thought he wasn't Division I material out of high school. Indeed, none of the three major instate schools offered him a scholarship. Jim Boylen at Utah Gallegos' dream school hardly cast a second look in his direction. Leaving Nebraska would be an admission that the naysayers were correct. Maybe he didn't have what it took.
Gallegos picked up the phone and called Sadler. He went back to Lincoln.
"I was scared and frustrated," Gallegos said. "I heard about people transferring to a smaller level and never being heard from again. I committed to Nebraska, and at the end of the day I didn't want to quit on them. People said I wasn't skilled enough to play at that level. And when I was at Nebraska, I concentrated. I wondered whether that would be the case if I came home."
He and Sadler sat down and mapped out a plan. In two years, the biggest weakness for Gallegos was his shooting and confidence. He put up enough bricks to build a house, and that affected the rest of his game. Plus, his strength wasn't where it should've been. He was taking a pounding in one of the best conferences in the country.
With two senior guards ahead of him, a redshirt became the most viable option.
"I knew I needed to get stronger," Gallegos said.
So he lived in the weight room. And he lived in the gym, shooting 1,000 jumpers a day, working on his body and his endurance. In many ways, he was still a boy when he entered his redshirt season. He emerged a man, mentally as well as physically.
Few things can rattle a college athlete more than a coaching change. To put it kindly, the uncertainty can get the best of many guys. Coaches come in with their own agenda. Many of them yank the scholarships of unwanted players left behind by the previous regime. Almost all have a completely different system than their predecessor.
Gallegos was fortunate. He and Miles knew each other, as Miles recruited him and offered him while he was building a winner in the Mountain West Conference at Colorado State. He lost Gallegos in 2009. Coach and player relied on each other in 2012.
"Ray has a huge heart and cares about the team, so it's easy to latch on to a guy like that," Miles said. "Plus, he improved immeasurably as a player. He could shoot, he could guard people, and he had great stamina. We had few options offensively. He had the entire Big 10 switching on him, and there were nights where none of that mattered. He was unstoppable on some nights."
Gallegos dropped 30 against nationally ranked Minnesota. He scored 23 points against Illinois, 22 against Iowa. He scored 20 points each in wins over Wake Forest and USC. But there were cold nights as well, like an 0-for-13 performance against Michigan State.
With a deep recruiting class coming in, Miles hopes to put more talent around Gallegos for his senior season. He wants Gallegos to be more efficient, and in turn more effective.
"I want to win games," Gallegos said. "Above all, I want to make the NCAA Tournament."
Twitter: @tjonessltrib Rayes Gallegos
• Averaged 12.5 points per game and led the Big Ten in minutes played.
• Never averaged more than three points per game before this past season.
• Never averaged more than 13 minutes per game before his junior year.
• Won the 2009 Class 5A state title while at West Jordan.
• Played AAU ball for Utah Pump N' Run.
• Almost transferred to Weber State after his freshman season.