Small Town Recruit, Big City Talent

Panthers' 6'10 Panoske had strong first season

By Kimberly Rhyme

Halfway between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan, Brodhead, Wisconsin sits in the middle of farm country. With just over 3,000 residents and one lone high school with a mere 340 students, there’s no denying that this town is small. But, despite its small size, there’s one thing this town proudly claims that no other town can.

His name is Jeremy Panoske and, as a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Panoske is playing Division I basketball for the UWM Panthers, becoming a hometown hero as one of the only Division I athletes to have come out of Brodhead.

“People really knew who he was,” said Brian Kammerer, Panoske’s high school basketball coach. Kammerer worked with Panoske since middle school, watching him grow from a “scrawny” kid at 6-foot-6 to a towering force at 6-foot-10 and over 200 pounds by his senior year.

“He was a standout that is for sure,” said sports reporter Craig Sauer. Sauer covered Panoske’s high school basketball team for The Independent Register, a local newspaper. “On the court, there wasn't much he couldn't do. He played on a different level than everyone else. That was plain to see.”

Panoske left high school at the top, being named All-Rock Valley South conference Player of the Year, having an honorable mention by the Associated Press All-State and a Division I scholarship to UWM.

“It was a good deal to get a Division I scholarship coming out of a small town like that,” said Panoske. “Everyone’s so proud. I still get calls and emails from back home.”

Panoske, called J.J. by everyone who knows him, is one of the newest additions to the Panther basketball team. Though he’s a sophomore on campus, Panoske chose to redshirt his freshman year, making this the first season he’s played. It was a decision he made with his father, Julius, who is one of Panoske’s biggest support systems since raising him and his brother as a single parent.

“He always thought that extra year was going to give me so much extra ability,” said Panoske, speaking about his father.

The year as a redshirt gave Panoske a chance to acclimate both mentally and physically to the university. He put on 25 pounds and gave himself some time to adjust to a city that’s over 150 times the size of the one in which he grew up.

Since beginning as a forward this season, Panoske has started 16 games and averaged 17 minutes per game. At 6-foot-10 and 235 pounds, according to the UWM men’s basketball website, Panoske stands out. He’s the tallest on the team and can tower over opponents on the court. He has the highest number of blocks, with a season average of 41. In a February game against Loyola, according to the 2012-2013 game notes, Panoske set a Milwaukee record for number blocks in a game at seven, helping lead the Panthers to a win that ended a seven game losing streak.

“His learning curve in the past month and a half has been unbelievable,” said Ryan Haggerty, a senior on the team. “But he’ll be the first to admit that he was a little stubborn earlier in the year.”

Coming from a small town to a Division I school, Panoske is getting a push that he’s never had before. This season, he’s has had to improve his aggressiveness on the court, being told my Coach Rob Jeter that he was “too nice,” as well as being able to accept these challenges.“I’m kind of a hard-headed kid. I get mad at people sometimes when they tell me I’m doing something wrong,” said Panoske. “But in the last few years I’ve gotten better.”

Still, Panoske isn’t short on confidence. On his Facebook profile, it states, “my occupation is ballin,” a reference to his prowess on the court. Coming from a small town, it can be hard to shake the big-man-on-campus attitude to which he became somewhat accustomed. Even at a school of 30,000 students, athletes can garner reputations for being put on a pedestal and being overconfident.

But Panoske puts in the work to back it up, being self-motivated since high school. He used to have his old coach come open the gym on the weekends and was constantly calling people to play hoops during the summers.

“He basically became a gym rat,” Kammerer said. “He’s a kid that knows when to work hard.”Ultimately, Panoske has been willing to put in the work to see the progress he wants to make.

“I’m not cocky but I’m confident with my abilities,” he said. “I always think I should be able to play at the highest level and when someone tells me I can’t, then I’m going to do something about it.”

This became true when he was denied a scholarship to play basketball at UW-Madison. It was a big disappointment for Panoske and, to this day, he plays Madison with “a chip on his shoulder,” feeling as though there’s something he needs to prove. In the December game against them, though the Panthers lost 74-53, Panoske had his most impressive performance of the season, scoring 13 points, six rebounds, two steals and three blocks.

“After that game I just started to feel more and more comfortable and realize that I just need to think the game instead of just playing basketball,” he said.

But, despite all of the exciting things that have happened for Panoske over the past few years, the road hasn’t always been so smooth. His parents divorced when he was only four years old and, shortly after, his mom left and never looked back.

“My dad told me my mom left. She went to Florida or something,” he said. “All I remember is just sitting there just crying on his lap.”

Panoske admits that he doesn’t know what it means to have a mother, but he doesn’t dwell on that fact. Rather, he tries to remember what he does have: basketball and a father who supports him.

“It’s tough but it’s not,” he says. “He’s always been there. He’s a mom and a dad to me.”

Panoske’s father attends nearly all of his games, making the two-hour trip one-way to Milwaukee to see his son play and driving home after, often late at night. Panoske says his father has always been a hard worker, owning his own plastering business, but doesn’t boast about it.“Just his actions motivate me,” said Panoske.

The two talk once or twice a day and before every game, in which his father offers similar words of advice every time:

“Are you going to do good today?” he asks.

“I’m going to try as hard as I can,” Panoske replies.

The bond between the two is strong and is a driving force behind Panoske’s work ethic and continued growth.

“I had bigger offers to go out of state,” he said. “But I didn’t want to go somewhere where my dad couldn’t see me play. That would just break his heart.”

Panoske still has other career aspirations besides basketball, acknowledging that he is a “student-athlete, not an athlete-student.” Majoring in Kinesiology, the study of the mechanics of body movements, Panoske has an emphasis in nutrition and hopes to work with a professional or college basketball team some day. But he also hopes to take basketball as far as it will take him.

“My ideal job is playing basketball and making money playing basketball,” he said. “When that gives out, then I’ll fall back on my major.”

Moving from a small-town to a big city, Panoske has had more than a few adjustments to make.

In less than 140 characters, his Twitter biography sums it up well: “You don’t walk my path so don't judge my journey.”

Panoske says his goal for the team over the next three years is to make it to the NCAA tournament. With five seniors graduating at the end of this season, including many of the Panther’s top scorers, there will be adjustments to make on the team and, as one of UWM’s stronger underclassmen, Panoske’s role on the team will likely continue to grow. 

As it does, 30,000 UWM students will be watching to see if he can help take the Panthers to the next level.

But even more, a small town of 3,000 will be watching to see what this hometown hero does next on the court.

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