The 2020-21 season has been a near-perfect one for the Casper College women’s basketball team. After qualifying for the National Junior College Athletics Association Division I Championships last year but being robbed of the opportunity to compete as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the No. 3 T-Birds are in Lubbock, Texas, to compete in this year’s NJCAA Championships. This time, they are even more determined to bring home the title.
Like everything else, this season has been a challenge. The Casper College basketball teams’ seasons started early this year with scrimmages in the case of another school closure and before games were officially allowed. As a result, the T-Birds have been on the court almost twice as much as in any other given year. The extra time paid off, though, as they were undefeated before an overtime loss to Otero Junior College in the Region IX championship game on April 10.
Natalia Otkhmezuri, a sophomore on the team, believes the T-Birds can use the loss as a learning opportunity. From her perspective, the team as a whole was willing to get the loss out of the way before nationals, and use it as motivation to not let it happen again.
“Our loss is painful,” Otkhmezuri said, “but we have lots to learn from it and have to trust each other and our coaches more than ever before.”
Otkhemzuri is one of the top 3-point shooters in the country – the 5-foot-8 guard is shooting 51.1% from behind the arc – and has had an impressive season and career at Casper College. Like many of the students comprising the college’s basketball, volleyball, and now soccer teams, Otkhmezuri is an exchange student.
Born and raised in Tbilisi, Georgia, she never had the opportunity to play basketball as much as she would have liked. Being a girl, she did not have the teams or opportunities to involve herself with as the boys did. Instead, she played with her brothers, and had a dad who served as a personal coach. She said Casper College has been an amazing opportunity for her to improve as a player and person while also being surrounded by strong, driven women.
“They give me motivation every day,” Otkhmezuri said. “They all work so hard, and do a lot on and off the court.”
It is no surprise then that this group of talented and determined players has been able to make school history at Casper College. The T-Birds had a school record 37-game winning streak dating back to last season and they were the first to go undefeated in the regular season.
Head coach Dwight Gunnare attributes their success to their ability to play off of one another’s strengths and balance each other out as a team.
“Recruiting is often a challenge because you never know how everyone’s talent is going to blend,” he said. “But this team’s chemistry is just good. We’re good at sharing the ball, and have great shooters and communicators. We’re definitely lucky.”
Gunnare and the players seem to know, however, that the luck of picking well-suited teammates only goes so far, and that it is the time and energy the team and coaches have put in that have really made the 2020-2021 season stand out.