For months the Casper College women’s basketball team continued to baffle its doubters and the rest of the NJCAA Region IX. The Thunderbirds advanced to the national tournament before the wheels fell off in the fourth quarter of the first round.
The dream season came to an abrupt end and the T-Birds finished 31-3.
Five sophomores from that team signed their letters of intent on Wednesday to continue athletic and academic careers elsewhere outside Swede Erickson Thunderbird Gym. All of them were thankful for the two short years they spent in Casper.
“I wish this was a four-year school,” sophomore guard Ashlie Larson said. “Making it to nationals is probably one of the best memories I’ll have.”
Larson, a native of Miles City, Montana, averaged 9.2 points and 2.6 rebounds for the T-Birds last year. Larson had other options on where to transfer — most notably at Montana State-Billings and Rocky Mountain College — before ultimately settling on Dickinson State in Dickinson, North Dakota. Moving closer to home was a main factor for that decision as Miles City is a 2-hour drive to Dickinson.
The national tournament brought Larson further from home but gave her everlasting memories. It brought that, along with opportunity, for some of her former teammates like Caroline Rivera.
Rivera had not been heavily recruited until the NJCAA Tournament, where she caught the eye of Louisiana. The Ragin’ Cajuns first made contact with Rivera at the tournament and two months later she signed her letter of intent to continue her career with them.
“It’s obviously a big stage so if you compete well and play well then you can get contacted,” the sophomore guard said. “That really helped me with the recruiting process but I was between Western Colorado and Colorado-Colorado Springs, and then I went to Lafayette and they just made me feel at home.”
Rivera, originally from Las Vegas, averaged 5.3 points and 2.5 rebounds while shooting 36.4 percent from the field last year.
Sophomore forward Natalia Panufnik had been in the same boat as Rivera before the national tournament. Then, on junior college women’s basketball’s biggest stage, the interest bombarded her. Ultimately, the forward decided on South Carolina-Upstate in Spartanburg, South Carolina, as her next location.
“It was a stressful decision but it was mine,” Panufnik said, “and I feel like I made it.”
The native of Wolomin, Poland, averaged 6.9 points and 4.0 rebounds for the T-Birds last season.
Another foreign-born player, Paula Orenes Sanchez, also found her next location. The sophomore guard elected to move closer to her family, originally from Barcelona, Spain, and commit to Florida International in Miami.
She averaged 10.3 points while shooting 37.8 percent from the floor.
“It’s been amazing,” Orenes Sanchez said of her time as a T-Bird. “I wouldn’t change my experience here and it was amazing sharing the two years with these girls.”
Also signing her letter of intent, standout sophomore guard Rose Altunbulak. She had been one of the T-Birds’ best players before a knee injury sidelined her until the start of this season.
The Alanya, Turkey, native recovered to be a constant contributor this season but without the star power. She also got injured early this season but was able to return to the court in a limited capacity compared to her immediate impact as a freshman.
“It was really hard,” Altunbulak said. “I played basketball for 10 years, maybe more. And after my injury I felt really bad but my coaches and my teammates really helped me.”
She will join Texas A&M International in Laredo, Texas, next season.
“Rose’s quickness and explosiveness are almost where they were before the knee injury she suffered in 2016,” Casper College head coach Dwight Gunnare said in a release, “and I believe her best basketball is ahead of her.”