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What began last summer culminates this week for the Casper College men’s basketball team. The Thunderbirds, for the first time in 23 years, will play in the National Junior College Athletics Association Division I Championship in Hutchinson, Kansas.

“I don’t think there’s any pressure on us because people don’t think we’re going to win this,” Casper College head coach Dan Russell said Friday. “So we just have to go have fun and execute and enjoy playing together one last week.”

It’s something the T-Birds first embraced when they started arriving on campus back in August.

“These are the best players I’ve ever played with,” sophomore wing Broc Finstuen said last month. “Everyone has their role on this team and it’s amazing. Ever since the beginning of the year we knew how good we could be.”

Added sophomore big man Zion Tordoff: “We put in a lot of work in the offseason and it’s great to see it pay off.”

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Casper College won the Region IX tournament last week to earn automatic qualification to the NJCAA Championship, although at 32-2 the T-Birds were almost guaranteed to receive one of the eight at-large berths. The ninth-seeded T-Birds open the NJCAA Championship on Monday against 24th-seeded Cleveland State Community College.

“There were a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of hard work has gone into this, from (Casper College volleyball coach and athletic director) Angel Sharman to (former head coach) Joel Davidson to former players and alumni,” Russell said. “It’s been awesome and kind of a surreal feeling.”

It became real last weekend when the T-Birds held off a late charge from Western Nebraska Community College in the semifinals and then defeated host Sheridan College for the second time in two weeks in the Region IX championship game.

“When Sheridan started subbing out their guys with under a minute left it kind of sunk in that, ‘Holy cow! We won this thing!’” said Russell, who is 145-51 in his sixth season as the T-Birds’ head coach.

Sophomore point guard Isaac Bonton, who had a game-high 32 points in the title game, sealed Casper College’s 87-74 victory at the free-throw line.

“When I was shooting free throws with about 10 seconds left I kind of took it all in,” Bonton said. “After the buzzer went off it kind of felt surreal. That night we enjoyed it and then we just wanted to focus on the next step, which was nationals.”

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Monday morning the T-Birds found out the NJCAA selection committee had seeded them ninth despite having the most wins and the best winning percentage of any team in the field. Not surprisingly, the T-Birds have used the low seeding – they were ranked No. 6 in the final regular season poll – as motivation.

“(Our seeding) really ramped up our practices,” Russell said. “The committee that put together the field and the seeds kind of put the chip back on our shoulders, even thought this group didn’t need that chip because that’s just how they play, it’s in their DNA.

“This team is looking to prove that we’re not just the best team in Region IX, we’re one of the best teams in the country. If they can continue with that mindset I think we can make some noise and make a run in this tournament.”

The T-Birds have been making noise all season. They won their first three games to open the season before suffering a 105-103 overtime loss to then-No. 3 College of Southern Idaho. Casper College then went on a 14-game winning streak to climb to No. 7 in the country before a 97-87 loss to then-No. 16 Sheridan College. The T-Birds haven’t lost since and enter the NJCAA Championship with a 15-game winning streak.

Bonton leads the team with 21.1 points per game, one of four players averaging double-digit points for the T-Birds. Sophomore forward Wilfried Likayi adds 17.1, sophomore guard Amin Adamu 15.2 and Finstuen 13.1. Casper College has also gotten solid production from Tordoff and reserves Jalen Harris, James Hampshire, Keiron Goodwin and Braxton Bertolette, who have combined to average 35.2 points per game for a team that is No. 3 in the nation in scoring at 101.4 points per game.

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Casper College will be facing a Cleveland State team that is averaging 72.2 points per game and topped 90 points just twice this season. The Cougars (15-15) entered their Region VII tournament with a losing record, but won four in a row to punch their ticket to the NJCAA Championship.

“It’s a scary team to play,” Russell said. “I don’t care what their record is, we’re going to have to bring it and play hard. We’re going to have to shake the cobwebs off early because Cleveland State is good enough to beat any team in the field.”

Cleveland State is led by sophomore forward Delaino Walker, who averages 16.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Sophomore wing Jonathon King adds 12.8 points per game. Head coach Lee Cigliano is 313-302 in his 22nd year with the Cougars.

“He’s a good coach who has been doing this for a long time with limited resources,” Russell said. “He’s done a really good job of getting his team to play well at the right time and getting them to the national tournament.”

The same could be said about Russell, although not for as long and with more resources. But he’s only the fourth coach to take the Casper College men’s team to the national tournament and the first to have the T-Birds in Hutchinson since Ed Toohey in 1996.

Despite all that, Russell believes the T-Birds are playing with house money at this point.

“We don’t have to stress out,” Russell said. “We don’t have to worry about hanging a national championship banner, even though that’s our goal. We just have to seize the moment and realize this has been one of the most special groups in Casper College history. These guys just have to relish that and live in the moment and enjoy playing together one last time.”

For Bonton and the rest of the T-Birds, this week is why they came to Casper College in the first place.

“We want to embrace it,” he said, “but at the same time we want to win games. We want to bring home the national championship, and I feel like we have the potential to do it.”

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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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