DAYTON — Jay Keo couldn’t quite believe his ears. It was Dec. 22, 2017, and he had just received a phone call informing him that he could play basketball for Tongue River High School.

“I almost cried,” Keo said. “I just was ecstatic. I started to sweat because I was just so happy. Started getting ready to go to practice, got anxious to play again. It was just one of the happiest moments of my life to be able to play my last year of high school basketball.”

Before that phone call, Keo feared he wouldn’t get a chance to step on the court for the Eagles. Due to a transfer violation, Keo was initially ruled ineligible by the Wyoming High School Activities Association. But they overturned the decision. Now, Keo, a senior guard and All-Conference player the last two seasons, makes his season debut Friday at Greybull.

“Jay has dealt with a lot in his life, more than any of us will ever know,” Tongue River head coach Ronnie Stewart said. “He deserves to be playing, and we’re excited to have him back.”

When Keo showed up to practice for the first time, some of his teammates thought he was joking, but they quickly realized no punchline was coming.

Keo transferred to Hardin (Montana) High School in August to live with his grandmother and siblings, but the school and town weren’t the right fit.

Keo moved back in with his guardian near Dayton and returned to TRHS about a week before Thanksgiving. But because he didn’t move to Hardin with a parent or guardian, he was ruled ineligible to play basketball. Unsure what to do, Keo asked Roberta Byrd, who works in the Crow Tribe education department — of which Keo is an enrolled member — for help.

Byrd talked with TRHS and Hardin High School officials to learn more about the process. She sent in paperwork to the WHSAA petitioning for a hardship waiver. Her application was initially denied but was eventually granted upon appeal.

The process took about a month and was significantly more time and work than Byrd anticipated, but it was worth it.

“He gets to play his senior year,” Byrd said. “That, in and of itself, is enough.”

Keo barely missed out on participating in last week’s North-South Challenge, as he had nine practices under his belt when the tournament started and a minimum of 10 practices are required to play, per WHSAA regulation. After four practices this week, Keo can’t wait to lace up his game shoes again.

His excitement carries weight beyond suiting up with his teammates. Keo’s mother died in 2015, and he is dedicating his final season to her.

“Knowing that I can play for her is just going to be amazing,” Keo said. “It’s just nice to have a reason to play.”

Keo’s life has revolved around basketball since middle school, so it took time to adjust to sitting on the bench in a shirt and tie during games. He encouraged teammates during timeouts, but not playing caused some restlessness.

“When I watch basketball games, it makes me want to play more,” Keo said.

Keo looked on as the Eagles suffered defeats in nine of 10 games, including three losses by six points or less that may have resulted in victories with their experienced point guard on the court.

Tongue River struggled with turnovers and creating shots, two of the best aspects of Keo’s game, according to Stewart. Keo will also take some pressure away from forward Jaren Fritz, who no longer has to carry the lion’s share of offensive responsibilities. Stewart complimented Keo’s competitiveness and unselfishness and said he wants him to shoot the ball more than he did last season.

Keo couldn’t practice with the team when he was ineligible, so he’d shoot at the Tongue River Valley Community Center after class. He also worked out at the Sheridan YMCA and played in open gyms at Sheridan College to stay in shape.

Still, individual workouts and open gyms can’t totally prepare him for game speed. Keo said he was slightly nervous to have only one game under his belt when conference play starts next week, but the Greybull game will give him a chance to adjust to varsity competition.

Keo believes Tongue River can win its conference and make the state tournament, but he doesn’t have his eyes locked onto any individual accolades.

“The only goal I really have is to play every second like it’s my last,” Keo said.

Friday, the seconds will finally start ticking.