Special needs student wraps up eight years with basketball team

As part of the Manti boys’ basketball team’s Senior Night, Noel Pantoja was honored as one of the seniors taking part in his final home game as a Templar. He is pictured here in a shirt and tie between Coach Devin Shakespear and the 2020-21 senior class.

MANTI—When the Manti boys’ basketball team ended their season last winter, it was the end of a memorable ride for a stellar senior group, including one who has seen more than any other player.

The Templars’ 2021 senior class played a pivotal role in capturing state championships in 2018 and 2020, but for the 23-year old Noel Pantoja, the final game in 2021 against Grand County meant the final time he would be doing what he did best.

At 23, Noel “graduated” from high school this year. He was diagnosed with autism at a young age, allowing his education to continue in a transition school for five years after his regular high school experience ended. To a stranger, Noel was the young man keeping players’ water filled, but over the last seven years on the Templars’ bench, he had become the spirit of the team.

When Coach Devin Shakespear began coaching the Templars in 2014, he was looking for a helper. This desire led him to seek Bethanne Chidester, the Severe Chair of the Special Education program at Manti High School.

“The more you can get the general ed students interacting with the students with special needs, over time, they just see that these kids aren’t very different from them,” Chidester said. “They form really great friendships.”

At the time, Noel was only 15 years old, and he lived across the street from the school in a mobile home park. Shakespear has always been accustomed to having team managers involved in his programs. It was through Chidester that he learned of the kid across the street who “wants to help with everything.”

As a child, Noel’s autism made it difficult to speak, combined with a bilingual upbringing being a Latin-American child of immigrants. He learned his first word when he was six years old, his mother, Alma Pantoja said. That word was “agua”, or in English, “water.”

Shakespear wasn’t the only one to take so well to Noel. From the very beginning with the state championship team from 2015, the players and staff connected with him.

Noel has not missed a practice in seven years, Shakespear said.

It wasn’t long before Noel became a fixture in team travel, and his welfare and safety on each trip became a combined interest of every single player on the team. Players took unprompted responsibility, Shakespear said, in making sure that Noel was fed, accompanied, and able to get home.

When he’s not refilling the player’s water bottles, Noel practices playing basketball on his own, picking various spots on the court to practice his own shot.

“He’s actually pretty dang good now,” Shakespear said. “You can imagine it after he’s been practicing every day for seven years!”

Noel’s gotten multiple opportunities over the years to showcase his growth and inclusion in the Manti basketball program, primarily in being a recurring star in one of Sanpete County’s most popular and inspiring community events: the Templar Pride charity basketball game.

Templar Pride is an exhibition game featuring special needs kids as young as 12 years old as not just players on the court, but even as cheerleaders on the sidelines, and yes, team managers, too. Shakespear refs the game every year, and it is objectively one of the loudest and spirited atmospheres of the entire season.

“It is the best thing I am part of every year,” Shakespear said.

Noel Pantoja, a 7th-year special needs senior from Manti, is pictured with the coaches and staff that have supported him all seven years of his high school experience.

From home, Alma has watched her son not only become socially accepted within the basketball program, but he also received many opportunities to grow as a person. Noel brought positivity and mental perseverance to the Templars program. It’s also brought the family closer together.

“Whenever there’s a game, there’s an emotional side that connects to it, whether happy or sad,” Noel’s brother, Evan, said. “He’ll come to us, and we love it. For him having autism, it surprises us that he’s still able to understand how he can socialize with and trust his family, and we can encourage him to keep doing this.”

“He’s also let out a lot of emotion when it comes to his friends talking about the game,” Alma said. “He always says, “I love my friends, I love my team,’ and he knows that next time, they will win.”

The Templars’ high standard of performance over the last seven seasons meant there weren’t a lot of times when Noel watched his teammates lose. Shakespear’s overall record is 120-54 with Manti. What doesn’t change after each game is Noel visiting Shakespear’s office the next day.

If the Templars won, great. If they lost, Noel’s response was the same, a simple “We’ll beat them next time.”

One thing that Noel struggled with was a fear of heights, and when Manti won a state championship in Shakespear and Noel’s first year with the team, it was a true challenge for Noel to climb the ladder and help the team cut down the nets in the Sevier Valley Center. He was able to get about two steps up, and with the support of his teammates, he raised his arms and delivered the cut.

The Templars have won three state championships in Shakespear’s tenure, three times that Noel has scaled the ladder to help his best friends cut the nets down and celebrate being at the top of the prep hoops mountain in Utah.

Manti became such a big part of Noel’s life that it became a great concern when the Panoja family moved to Gunnison a few years ago.

“We were really concerned about him getting lost in Gunnison,” Shakespear said. “Nothing against Gunnison; it’s just that Manti was his life.”

Chidester, through the special education program, made it possible to pick Noel up for school from his home every day to keep him at Manti all the way until he graduated, and in time, Shakespear’s players were Noel’s primary form of transport to and from home, Shakespeare said.

“I talk about this with all my players. When we go to state, I actually bring up Noel to the players,” Shakespear said. “I explain to them, ‘You guys don’t have any idea how much Noel and other guys want to be in your shoes, just how blessed we are to play the game.”

That message continued when Manti was knocked out of the championship bracket in 2021 by Judge Memorial. It’s never easy as a team to lose in the playoffs and have to wake up to play for 5th/6th place the next day, but as Shakespear told the team, “Noel deserves to play one more day.”

Manti took 6th place in state last winter, losing to Grand County in their final game. Noel did the same thing he always did. He visited Shakespear the next day and said, “We’ll beat them next time.” The Templars may owe Grand a revenge win on Noel’s behalf next winter.

“What he’s done for our boys is he’s given them a greater perspective on what’s important in life,” Shakespear said. “Games, win or lose, they end, but someone like Noel teaches the boys how to become better people. That has really done a lot of good for our players.”