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The Casper College women’s basketball team surprised everyone but themselves this season.

The 13th-ranked Thunderbirds (31-2) won the Region IX championship last weekend with an 85-75 victory over Western Nebraska Community College. The win was the 21st in a row for the T-Birds and qualified them for the NJCAA Division I Championship, which begins today in Lubbock, Texas.

The 31 victories are the most for the program since the 2009-10 team went 33-5 and finished fourth at the NJCAA Championship. Yet the T-Birds knew early on this season had the chance to be a special one.

“At the first practice we just had an energy and an intensity that was so different than last year,” sophomore Emily Robertson said. “So I just knew from the first practice it was possible for us to go to nationals.”

Added sophomore Paula Orenes-Sanchez: “I think from the very beginning I felt like we could make it to nationals. We have good chemistry that we didn’t have last year.

“To play basketball with this team is so much fun. This is what basketball means … play as a team and have fun with your team.”

Head coach Dwight Gunnare, who is 262-70 in his 10th season with the T-Birds, also believed his team could challenge for a Region IX title, although he wasn’t as convinced as his players.

“The first day of practice I was still learning names and faces,” he said. “So I don’t know if I was ready to hitch up to the bandwagon yet. But by mid-September there was just something there … the chemistry was good, the energy was good. And for having so many new players their on-court chemistry was good and they passed the ball so well.”

Casper College will go for win No. 32 Monday when the 10th-seeded T-Birds take on 23rd-seeded South Georgia Tech (28-5) in a first-round game.

Despite having three all-Region IX players – Lucie Hoskova, Robertson and Orenes-Sanchez – the T-Birds rely more on balance than they do star power.

Hoskova, a 5-foot-10 forward from the Czech Republic, leads the team in scoring at 12.2 points per game, a mark that puts her outside the Top 20 scorers in Region IX. Following Hoskova for the T-Birds are Orenes-Sanchez (10.3), Robertson (10.2) and sophomore Ashlie Larson (9.5). Nine players average at least 5.1 points per game, which helps explain why the T-Birds led Region IX in scoring at 79.2 points per game.

“That’s because of our balance and our depth,” Gunnare said. “I think that made a difference in a lot of our games because teams couldn’t key on one individual, and if someone was having an off night we could go to the next person. All in all, I think we had a great balance between interior and perimeter scoring.”

As testament to that balance, 12 T-Birds scored in double figures in at least one game this season.

“Everyone contributes and there are always games where someone else steps up,” Robertson said. “We don’t always have to rely on one person and I think that’s why this team is good because we’re so deep.”

“We have really deep bench, which a lot of teams don’t have,” added Hoskova. “We can have good subs and people don’t get tired.”

Whether the T-Birds can continue their impressive run will depend on how they can defend South Georgia Tech’s inside players. The Jets have five players 6-foot or taller compared to just Robertson (6-2) for the T-Birds.

“Our biggest challenge is they have four or five big post players,” Gunnare said. “They’ll have two of them on the floor at the same time and we haven’t had to deal with that in Region IX.”

Then again, South Georgia Tech hasn’t had to deal with a team with the balance Casper College has. Not to mention that the T-Birds haven’t lost since a 77-72 setback at Western Nebraska on Dec. 5.

“It’s pretty impressive, but you just take each win as a win and you prepare for the next team,” Robertson said. “But 31-2 is kind of hard to think about. We’re winning and winning and winning, but we don’t come into each game and think we’re always going to win.

“We came into every practice and every game focused and knowing what we had to do to get to nationals.”

This is the T-Birds’ first appearance in the NJCAA Championship since they went back-to-back in 2009-10 and 2010-11.

“I remember coming up here and sending them away and I remember looking up to them when I was a little girl,” said Robertson, a Natrona County High School grad. “So for me to be in the same position is pretty cool.”

For the T-Birds to be back at the NJCAA Championship has taken some time, and they’re ready to make sure it lasts as long as possible. Win or lose, though, Gunnare said it won’t take away from what this team did this season.

“I couldn’t be prouder of this team’s accomplishments,” he said. “For me, anything we do from this point forward is all bonus. It’s been a tremendous season. We knocked off a lot of goals that we set going into the season.”

Follow sports editor Jack Nowlin on Twitter @CASJackN

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Sports Editor

Jack Nowlin returned to the Star-Tribune in 2007 after eight years covering Michigan State University athletics. A Wyoming native, and a graduate of Jeffrey City High School and the University of Wyoming, Jack serves as the Star-Tribune’s sports editor.

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