Part of what makes the Casper College men's basketball team an underlying threat this year is its potential. It's only been a matter of reaching that potential.
The Thunderbirds (16-5, 4-1 Region IX North) returned talent from last season and came into this season with high hopes. But standout guard Chase Winchester was sidelined in the first semester with a broken foot and the T-Birds struggled to figure out their best rotation.
Now they are seeing the potential. The T-Birds are 13-2 in their last 15 games and they have started to play well together as Winchester, forward Zion Tordoff and Sheridan graduate Blake Godwin have found their roles.
"We're getting our players back off of injuries and things like that," Winchester said. "So we're getting the whole team together and our chemistry together."
The sophomore Texan's impact cannot be overstated. The T-Birds have just one loss since he's returned to the court. In Wednesday night's 100-85 win against Northwest College, Winchester broke out for a game-high 30 points and played all 40 minutes.
Those two stats say enough by themselves. But there's even more that he brings to the table to make the T-Birds dangerous.
"He had eight assists to one turnover," Casper College head coach Dan Russell said. "That category right there is something we didn't have in the first semester while he was out. He has a little ways to go still, but people are starting to see what he's capable of and what he brings to the team and sort of his calming presence, leader on the floor that we just didn't have in the first semester and struggled because of it."
Winchester's circus half-court runner barely beat the halftime horn and sent Wednesday's game into the break tied at 40. He then scored 18 points in the second half and was the catalyst that helped the T-Birds pull away.
He also teamed well with Godwin, who scored 11 in the second half and Tordoff, who scored seven in the final 20 minutes.
"More than anything it was just our effort and our energy that picked up quite a bit in the second half," Russell said. "I just didn't feel like our guys competed in the first half and we were in a ball game because of it.
"I think in the second half we started off the half pretty well but our effort started to ramp up and that led to stops, stops led to buckets and it kind of went from there."
Wednesday night's game was also the only reprieve from the road the T-Birds have felt in nearly three weeks. A scattered but attentive crowd was on hand for the Region IX North clash. It was Casper College's first home game since Jan. 8.
The players enjoyed having a friendly crowd surround them and their head coach was just as happy to not be confined to a long bus ride after the game.
"This month of January has been brutal," Russell said. "It was nice to be home. It was kind of like catching a breath of fresh air a little bit after being stuck inside for a long time. But it doesn't get any easier for us."
He's not wrong. In fact, this stretch may be the most difficult of the season for the T-Birds.
Casper College completes January on the road for two more games, both against ranked divisional opponents. The T-Birds travel to No. 17 Sheridan College on Saturday before wrapping the month up on Jan. 31 at undefeated No. 6 Gillette College.
Russell and his team seemed excited about the possibilities that both games could provide. Gillette College (21-0, 5-0) holds a one-game lead over the T-Birds thanks to a 102-78 victory over Sheridan College (17-3, 3-2) on Wednesday.
A win against either would be big for the T-Birds' resume. Two victories would surely move them back into the voters' favor. It's just a matter of meeting their potential.
"We can work on everything, especially defense," Winchester said. "There's always things to work on, help-side, taking charges, talking on D, things like that."