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Casper College's Wilfried Likayi shoots during a drill during the T-Birds' last practice Friday at Swede Erickson Thunderbird Gym.

Casper College has won 32 games this season on the strength of solid team play.

Four different Thunderbirds are scoring in double figures – five if you add in injured freshman Philip Pepple Jr. – entering Monday’s first round NJCAA Championship game against Cleveland State Community College. And 12 different T-Birds have had at least one double-digit game this season.

But the unquestioned leaders for Casper College are sophomore point guard Isaac Bonton and sophomore forward Wilfried Likayi. On Tuesday, Bonton and Likayi were named Region IX North Co-Players of the Year. Bonton averaged a team-best 21.1 points per game and led the sub-region with 5.6 assists per game; Likayi averaged 17.1 points and a team-best 7.9 rebounds per game. But their value to the T-Birds goes beyond their numbers.

“I think what they’ve done to bring the group together as far as a leadership standpoint has been monumental,” Casper College head coach Dan Russell said. “I know we haven’t had to deal with a ton of adversity, but there have been some things that have gone on behind the scenes. And those guys have rallied the troops. Not only have they led by voice, but they’ve led by example.”

That was evident in the final two games of the Region IX tournament last week, in which Bonton averaged 36.5 points and Likayi averaged 21.0 points and 11.0 rebounds.

“If there’s a better junior college guard in the country, I’d like to see him stacked up against Isaac,” Russell said. “In all my years at Casper College I don’t think I’ve seen a player play that well, and pick up that much slack and be that productive in a Region IX tournament. I think Isaac made a big statement with his play in those two games.”

Likayi wasn’t surprised by Bonton’s performances in the T-Birds’ biggest games of the season to that point. After all, Likayi has been watching Bonton for years; the two graduated from Parkrose High School in Portland, Oregon.

“He has always lived for moments like those,” Likayi said of Bonton. “He’s always had that extra gear, so when games get tough and he has to turn on that, ‘I’ve got to score’ mode, it’s always there.”

The 6-foot-10 Likayi has improved immensely since last year, when he averaged just 3.4 points per game for the T-Birds.

“Wil has probably made the biggest change from where he was as a freshman to where he is now,” Russell said.

Added Bonton: “I’ve just seen extreme growth from Wil,” he said. “We’ve taken so many steps mentally and physically … just learning how to play the game the right way and dominate in certain areas. We worked together all summer because we knew we were going to come in and do something amazing.”

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Sports Editor

Jack Nowlin returned to the Star-Tribune in 2007 after eight years covering Michigan State University athletics. A Wyoming native, and a graduate of Jeffrey City High School and the University of Wyoming, Jack serves as the Star-Tribune’s sports editor.

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