The Natrona County girls basketball team is in uncharted territory going into this weekend’s Class 4A West Regional in Jackson while the boys are set for a rematch of their regional opener from last season.
Every year since the current regional format began with the 2008-09 season the Fillies have been either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the West Regional and, by virtue, an automatic qualifier to the state tournament. This season, however, they go into regionals as the No. 3 seed and playing for a spot in next week’s state tournament.
The Fillies (12-9, 6-4 4A West Conference) play No. 6 Green River (6-16, 0-10) at 7 p.m. on Thursday for a state tournament berth. Natrona County won the two previous meetings, 56-38 on Feb. 2 and 64-26 on Feb. 23.
It’s worth noting that Green River started 5-2 going into the winter break but has won just one game since after a string of injuries. Four separate Wolves have been sidelined since the season began with season-ending leg injuries, including standout Ashlynn Birch. Birch averaged 14.5 points and 12.3 rebounds over 15 games before her injury.
Because of this, seeding and confidence through regionals may be of more concern than the actual outcome of Thursday’s opening game for the Fillies. They go into regionals with the top scoring defense in Class 4A (40.6 points per game) but the offense has continued to be sporadic. Twice in the last three games the Fillies have failed to score 40 points, including in a 44-39 loss to Rock Springs last weekend.
An encouraging sign for the Fillies last week was Morgan Schwindt, who scored a team-high 19 against Green River. If Bre Kelly, Emma Swan and Marquel Gibson shoot with confidence from the outside then the Fillies may do more than just qualify for the state tournament.
Meanwhile, the Mustangs face a one-and-done in the West Regional as the underdog. Natrona County (5-16, 3-7) plays Green River (14-7, 4-6) in the first round on Thursday again with a state tournament berth on the line.
The Mustangs won last year’s regional matchup and face similar circumstances Thursday. However, they go into this year’s regional tournament less than a week removed from a 64-61 victory over the Wolves.
It has been a difficult journey for the Mustangs, who have lost just one of their conference games this season by more than eight points. Their defense forces teams to be patient in the half-court with the occasional attack, which has been troubling to some teams.
That, however, hasn’t necessarily translated into points on the offensive end. The Mustangs are shooting just 37 percent from the floor, second-worst in 4A. That could be damaging as the Mustangs perform best when limiting possessions.
A strong performance from the Mustangs’ senior class could be the difference in the state tournament. Brennan Hagar leads the team with 10.9 points per game and Brett Norvelle averages 10.4. Then there’s the all-around contributions of Jesse Harshman (5.8 points, 4.8 rebounds) and Ben Acres (6.5 points, 7.8 rebounds).
The Mustangs will have to do exactly what they did a week ago in order to defeat the Wolves, who have five different players averaging 8.2 or more points per game. If success cannot be duplicated Thursday night in Jackson then the Mustangs would miss the state tournament for the second time in three years.