Injuries finally caught up to the Casper College women’s basketball team last season.
Despite losing starting guard Rose Altunbulak to a knee injury after just three games, the Thunderbirds were 15-4 and leading the North sub-region following an 85-61 victory over Central Wyoming College on Jan. 21. But then they lost starting forward Rojin Karahan to injury and struggled to a 7-5 finish, capped by a 70-69 loss to Northwest College in the Region IX tournament.
“Losing Rose was a big hit for us right off the bat,” head coach Dwight Gunnare said recently. “And then we lost Rojin in January. Those injuries were hard to overcome.”
While Karahan is no longer with the program, Altunbulak is expected to return to the starting lineup after receiving a medical redshirt.
“If we can get Rose back to the level she was at as a freshman that is going to be huge for us,” Gunnare said of the 5-foot-6 guard from Turkey, who averaged 7.0 points per game that season.
Altunbulak will have plenty of familiar faces when she returns as Casper College welcomes back six players who started games last season.
That includes 5-8 point guard Paula Orenes and 5-10 forward Natalia Panufnik, who combined to start 47 games and averaged 20.2 points per game for the T-Birds (22-9). The other returnees are 5-8 guard Caroline Rivera, 5-6 guard Bruna Vila Artigues, 5-7 guard Ashlie Larson and 6-2 center Emily Robertson.
Robertson, a graduate of Natrona County High School, was a force at times last season. She finished her rookie campaign averaging 9.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game and led Region IX in field-goal percentage (57.8).
“Last year Emily exceeded my expectations,” Gunnare said. “I think what got to her a little bit last year was the longer she was on the floor the less powerful she was. She got a little fatigued and didn’t demand her space. She was an impact player when she was fresh.”
In hopes of making sure that doesn’t happen again, Gunnare said Robertson has focused on conditioning during the offseason.
“Emily had some great moments last year,” said Gunnare, who is entering his ninth season on the T-Birds sideline. “She’s so athletic and she really understands the game, but we think she can take that next step if she improves her conditioning.
“Emily has a chance to be one of the better post players in the region.”
In addition to the seven returning players, the T-Birds are bringing in six freshmen, three of whom are in-state players – Laree Foley from Kaycee, Maggie Justinak from Rock Springs and Jaye Johnson from Natrona.
Foley was a two-time all-state selection for the Class 1A Buckaroos. The 5-8 guard averaged a double-double last year with 13.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
The 5-7 Justinak averaged 15.3 points per contest and earned all-state honors for the Class 4A Tigers, who captured the consolation championship at state.
“Maggie was the focal point for a lot of defenses last year,” Gunnare said, “but at this level it’s rare that a player will get that kind of treatment. So I think she will have more opportunities to be a scorer at this level.”
Johnson battled injuries throughout last season, but still averaged 12.4 points per game and helped lead the Fillies to a third-place finish at state.
“I think Jaye has got a great upside,” Gunnare said of the 5-10 wing. “Hopefully she’s got those injuries behind her and she can take off and be an excellent college basketball player.
“I think those three all have their best basketball ahead of them.”
Rounding out the T-Birds lineup are 6-0 center Nerea Baena from Spain; 5-10 forward Lucie Hoskova from the Czech Republic; and 6-0 center Mya Jones from Rapid City, South Dakota.
With six international players – Orenes, Baena and Vila Artigues (Spain), Altunbulak (Turkey), Hoskova (Czech Republic) and Panufnik (Poland) – Gunnare isn’t sure what to expect when they get on campus next month.
“Those kids all went home and that’s good because they all missed their families,” he said. “The scary part about that is we really don’t know what they do during the summer. We don’t know what to expect when they return because we really don’t have a pulse on them at all.”