DENVER • If you see Hunter Maldonado fighting a mountain lion, help the mountain lion.

He will be back at the University of Wyoming, you know, and better than he was before. He will be back from the painful back, knee and ankle injuries he suffered in the same tumble, injuries that quarantined him to the bench for UW’s game at Air Force on Wednesday, because when Hunter goes down he always come back.

He will be back, as Vista Ridge coach Joe Hites said, because “Hunter’s Hunter, man.”

How do we know? Because when Maldonado was a sophomore at Vista Ridge, he had this one crummy game at Discovery Canyon when he played on a bum ankle. The student section chanted “Over-rated! Over-rated!” like student sections do, and Hunter didn’t forget.

The next year he’s getting his ankles taped by Hites, and Hunter says: “Watch this, Coach.” Five dunks and 38 points later he was back, and the Discovery Canyon student section was lining up outside the locker room for his autograph.

“Hunter is the epitome of what you want young kids to emulate,” Hites said.

Good guys deserve better than Maldonado has endured as a sophomore at Wyoming. But that’s life. It’s not fair, and the folks who know him best share the same sentiment: Hunter will be back. He already was hurting from back spasms when he took that tumble against Denver on Dec. 11. The result of that fall was the three injuries we were talking about — back, knee, ankle — and the end of his season.

The Pokes are pursuing a medical redshirt waiver for the 6-foot-7 jumping jack who was second on the team in scoring when he got hurt, and his case file fits all the criteria for a no-brainer redshirt.

“Really scary,” Maldonado said from Laramie.

“When I landed, I couldn’t feel my leg at all. I thought I had broken something in my back.”

Back injuries being back injuries, Maldonado being a keeper, Wyoming coach Allen Edwards swerved to the side of caution. And what hurts now helps later. If you thought Maldonado was building into an inferno in the Mountain West as a sophomore (averaging around 14 points, seven rebounds, two assists in eight games), wait till you get a load of him as a fifth-year senior in the conference.

There was some thought at Wyoming — mostly from Maldonado — to a potential return this year. Nah. These Pokes were 5-16 before the Air Force game and not going anywhere. Shut him down and clear room in the trophy case for his conference player of the year award as a senior.

“It was hard to describe,” he said. “At first with my leg being numb you kind of can’t really feel anything. You’re scared. Once (it) starts coming back it hurts pretty bad, I’m not going to lie.”

Hunter’s not the lying type. He’s the gentleman type, the relentless type, the winning type. He’s my favorite type, a local star who stayed on the Front Range, jumping from Vista Ridge to UW.

This is The Gazette’s 2017 Peak Performer of the Year we’re dealing with, not the sit-on-the-bench type. Until now: no thanks to the vicious fall in December, Maldonado has been relegated to coaching from the UW bench, a sophomore voted team captain by basketball players who know a leader when they see one. Wednesday was supposed to be a homecoming for Maldonado, his first college try to play 20 minutes from their home in Colorado Springs.

“As a kid growing up, that’s who I watched,” he said of Air Force basketball.

“I want to be out there and I want to help,” he added.

There’s no time line for a return to the court, but it’s going to be a while. Maldonado said his lost season is all part of “God’s plan” and will serve as a benefit “now or down the road.”

Not much else has changed. With Vista Ridge in a Cherry Creek tournament over Christmas break, Maldonado still showed up, on crutches.

“We’re thinking, ‘This sucker got hit by a bus.’ They should’ve wheeled him in on a wheelchair,” Hites said. “And he’s there supporting us.”

Congrats to all the athletes who signed letters of intent on national signing day. Now rip a page from the Maldonado handbook and go all-in with your college coaches. He was that way with Hites at Vista Ridge and has become that way with Edwards at Wyoming.

“Me and coach Edwards are a lot alike,” Maldonado said. Before this season — before it all crash-landed onto the court — he snuck into a Vista Ridge practice to share his wisdom with the next herd of Wolves.

His message to the kids: This is the program where I grew up, and it means the world to me. You must represent us in a first-class manner at all times. There are no exceptions.

Up at Wyoming, teammates would see if the feeling had returned to his numb leg by yanking out his leg hairs. Good times.

“I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned (through the injuries) is that you can’t get upset with things you can’t control,” he said.

“This one tests your faith in basketball,” he said.

What hurts now helps later. How do we know?

Hunter’s Hunter, man.

(Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at paul.klee@gazette.com or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.)

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