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Shaun Gutting isn’t one to back down from challenges.

And that’s a good thing because the first-year head coach of the Casper College men’s basketball team has some big shoes to fill on the sidelines and some big holes to fill on the court for the 2019-20 season.

Gutting was hired on May 22 to replace Dan Russell, who left May 2 to take an assistant coaching job at Montana State. In six years as the Thunderbirds’ head coach, Russell went 145-52, capped by last year’s 32-3 mark that included a No. 6 national ranking and the program’s first Region IX championship in 23 years.

Gutting is also tasked with replacing all five starters along with three key reserves.

Thankfully for Gutting, he got a firsthand look at the program last year as the T-Birds’ assistant coach after spending the previous five years as an assistant at New Mexico Junior College.

“It’s a situation where there’s already pressure just being a college coach, so there’s no reason to add more,” Gutting said. “I know that Dan Russell trusts me with his program and that’s pressure enough. At the same time I have the support of all the people around here who supported him, so it feels like home and it makes it easier on me.”

And despite having to replace nearly 90 points per game from last year, the T-Birds aren’t starting from scratch. Gutting welcomes back sophomore point guard Jalen Harris, who averaged 5.7 points and 2.8 assists per game; sophomore big man Philip Pepple Jr., who averaged 10.1 points on 72.3-percent shooting in 17 games before being lost for the season with a knee injury; and point guard Isaiah Banks, who redshirted last season. Guards Manny N’Tula (Kelly Walsh) and Eric Jamerman (Douglas) also were on the team last year.

“We lost a couple of guys to the transition,” Gutting said, “but for the most part we were able to keep a strong corps of guys that played and gave us significant minutes last year. It’s a group of guys who understand what Casper is about and what I’m about.”

One of Gutting’s first moves after getting hired was finding someone to replace him on the bench. For that, he turned to former College of Southern Idaho volunteer assistant Lester Stewart. Gutting called it “a fairly easy choice” to grab Stewart.

“I’ve known Lester ever since he started out at CSI,” Gutting said. “It ended up being a situation where his ties with recruiting, his work ethic and how badly he wants to be a college coach made it a pretty easy decision. I had a lot of really good coaches telling me how good he was and applauding my decision because of his potential as a college coach.”

Even though there are still a couple of slots available, Gutting was able to fill out the T-Birds’ roster with sophomore guard David Walker, a transfer from the College of Southern Idaho, and six freshman. The group of rookies includes in-state products Jordan Malm from Torrington and Hudda Herrera from Laramie.

“I think the freshmen that are coming in are going to be a really good staple for what I want to do moving forward,” Gutting said. “They are all talented and they all come from winning programs. I’m hoping that’s something they understand how to continue at the college level.

“The good thing about Casper College is because of the year we had last year we’re adding our name as one of the top-tier programs. We’re a little bit more recognizable. Now it’s on me and our program to keep that going.”

Gutting admits he hasn’t had much time to appreciate his current situation, although he does reflect back to the situation he was in a year ago.

“There hasn’t been a whole lot of slowing down,” he said. “It’s been about everything I expected it to be, both challenging and rewarding already.

“The athletic director at Iowa Western called me right after I got the job and said, ‘Just picture where you were a year ago and how much things can change.’ Besides, this is what I want to do. This is a dream job type of situation. Everybody’s dream is different, but I feel like I have been very lucky. Here I am at 31 with my own program.”

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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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