LARAMIE – Jaye Johnson’s goal has been to play Division I basketball.
She carried that mindset throughout her prep career at Casper Natrona County, where she was a three-year letterwinner and an all-conference selection.
Yet colleges didn’t bite. Her recruiting trail went cold.
She had one option – Casper College. Johnson took it without hesitation, knowing if she stayed true to herself, put in the work, continued to excel in the classroom and trusted her faith, she would move on to bigger and better things.
A 5-foot-10 forward, Johnson started for the Thunderbirds during her two seasons there. She helped the T-Birds to a 31-win season as a freshman in 2017-18 and a Region IX championship. As a sophomore, she helped the T-Birds go 27-7 and punch a ticket to the Region IX tournament. During that campaign, she averaged 11.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists and more than 27 minutes per game.
The payoff? Multiple conversations with the University of Wyoming.
First-year Cowgirls coach Gerald Mattinson, who was an assistant for the now retired Joe Legerski, was in constant communication with Johnson during her sophomore campaign. In fact, Mattinson made the trip to Casper to watch Johnson during practice at the start of the season.
UW reached out to Johnson again during the middle of the season.
“We just kept talking from there,” Johnson said.
Last April, UW offered Johnson a scholarship. It was a no-brainer.
“Right,” Johnson said with a laugh. “It was the best offer I had.”
Instead of packing her bags and crossing state lines, Johnson will spend the next two years playing in the Equality State for the team she grew up rooting for.
“It’s really exciting to me to be able to play for my home state, and everybody, all of my family will be able to come,” she said. “It’s pretty cool to me.”
As excited as Johnson is to live out the opportunity she dreamed of and then earned, she is always conscious of the path she took to get to Laramie. It wasn’t easy.
While at Casper College, Johnson had to grow through adversity – from tough times, to battling her own emotions, to sharpening her shot, footwork and skills – which has given her the confidence she says she needs to be successful at the Division I level.
“It helped me grow tougher and showed me that I need to not be as emotional as I was,” said Johnson. “And it really helped me grow through that and all the mental (things) that happen with basketball.”
Those trials and tribulations Johnson went through in JUCO have helped make the transition to DI basketball and, quite frankly, being on a new team, easier than it could have been.
“People take care of you,” Johnson said. “People know what you’re going through. Coach ‘G’ understands I want to be here, and I want to get better and play at this level, and he is allowing me to push through that and helping guide me through it.”
Johnson is one of five Wyoming products on the 2019-20 roster, which marks the first time that has happened since the 1996-97 season. With Johnson’s size and ability, Mattinson has liked what he has seen so far during preseason camp from his JUCO transfer.
“Jaye’s brought a lot of athleticism to our team,” the coach said. “She is just a great natural athlete. She has the ability to shoot the 3 when she can get her feet set, so that’s been a plus.
“Right now, she is just like our freshmen; there’s just a lot coming at her really, really fast, and she is just trying to figure it all out and sort out some things defensively and offensively. But she has had a good (preseason camp), and she is getting a little bit better each day. That’s been a positive for us.”
But Johnson doesn’t plan on having a standout moment or two during preseason practice. No, her aspirations are to grab a starting spot and run with it.
“You always have to compete for that,” she said. “But I’m going to try as hard as I can to be a main player.”