By all accounts, the Casper College women’s basketball team’s season ended prematurely.
On March 19, the Thunderbirds saw a fourth-quarter lead slip away in a 77-65 overtime loss to South Georgia Tech in the opening round of the National Junior College Athletic Association Division I Championship.
The defeat ended what had been one of the most impressive seasons in the program’s history.
“It was a tremendous season all around,” head coach Dwight Gunnare said in his office last week. “It’s important for us not to let that last game taint the season for us in any way.”
The T-Birds, who finished 31-3, had won 21 consecutive games and were ranked No 13 entering the NJCAA Championship. They rolled through the Region IX North sub-region, winning 13 of 14 games by double digits, before defeating Western Nebraska Community College to capture the Region IX tournament on their home floor.
“If we look at the whole season it would be one of the best we’ve ever had,” Gunnare said. “And it was extremely enjoyable. The last game has a way of defining your season, and unfortunately ours didn’t end on a high note.”
The Region IX championship was the program’s first since winning back to back titles in 2010-11.
With seven sophomores on this year’s roster, the T-Birds will be hard-pressed to equal the success of the 2017-18 season. The T-Birds had four sophomore starters – Bruna Vila Artigues, Paula Orenes-Sanchez, Ashlie Larson and Emily Robertson – and the seven were responsible for 63.7 percent of the team’s points.
Still, Gunnare fully expects Casper College to contend for another sub-region title and be in the mix for a return trip to nationals.
“I think we have a good nucleus of kids returning,” he said. “Recruiting is still in the early stages, but I do think we have a good group coming in to join our returning players.
“We have signed two international point guards because we’re losing Rose (Altunbulak), Bruna and Caroline (Rivera). Typically I like to have a freshman and a sophomore at every position, but with Rose coming off a medical redshirt we had three sophomores at that position. Outside of that we try to add a player at each position – a combo guard, a wing, a forward and a post player.”
The cupboard isn’t bare
Despite having to replace the seven sophomores, the T-Birds return five players who averaged double-digit minutes this season, including All-Region IX forward Lucie Hoskova. The 5-foot-10 lefty from the Czech Republic led the team in scoring at 12.4 points per game and was second with 5.9 rebounds per contest.
“With Lucie, we’re going to keep developing her right hand,” Gunnare said. “She had a great year, but we think she can be even better next year.”
The T-Birds also should be set at center, with Mya Jones and Nerea Baena both back in the fold. The two combined to average 11.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
“Right now we’re not actively recruiting a true five because we have Mya and Nerea returning,” Gunnare said. “This year we’re just looking for someone that can fill in in an as-needed basis. Other than that we’re just trying to get some balance and talent at every position.”
That includes in-state guards Jaye Johnson (Natrona County) and Maggie Justinak (Rock Springs), both of whom had games this season in which they scored in double figures.
“We’re going to work with Maggie on her shot release,” Gunnare said. “She’s a great shooter, we’re just trying to make that release a little bit quicker.
“And I think Jaye had a great freshman year, but we want to develop her consistency. We want her to work on her physicality this spring as well.”
Gunnare added that the T-Birds have already started spring practices and he and his staff are meeting with each player individually.
“They all have things that we’re going to focus on in individual workouts and collectively,” he said. “And when we do team scrimmages, we’re going to give them areas to work on. And it doesn’t matter if they fail right now because it’s spring basketball and that’s when you want to challenge yourself.”
While none of the T-Birds sophomores have signed to continue their collegiate careers, Gunnare fully expects all of them to do so.
“We don’t have any commitments yet,” he said, “but all seven of our sophomores are in very good communications with schools. Several have gone on visits already and all of them have visits scheduled. I’m pretty confident that within the next few weeks almost all of our sophomores will have a new home.
“I think we’ll have several kids that will have some Division I offers and a lot of Division II offers. It’s been going well, we just don’t have any commitments yet.”
So while Gunnare waits to see where his sophomores go, he can’t help but smile when he looks back on the just-completed season.
“My most memorable part of this season was watching their expressions after they beat Western Nebraska to win the regional championship,” he said. “That is something that will carry over, it’s a lock-in memory.
“The longer I’m in this business I have learned to appreciate seasons like this or even close to this. It doesn’t get easier it gets harder because there is so much parity in our game, so there definitely is a sense of accomplishment.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our kids. This will be one of the teams that will go down as one of the best and I’ll be sad to see them go.”