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Casper College women go for second Region IX title in three years
CASPER COLLEGE WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

Casper College women go for second Region IX title in three years

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Casper girls basketball

Casper College's Natalia Otkhmezuri makes a jumper in the T-Birds' game against Gillette College on Feb. 19 at Swede Erickson Thunderbird Gym in Casper.

If someone would have told Casper College women’s basketball coach Dwight Gunnare back on Jan. 11 that his team would be hosting the Region IX Tournament this weekend, he wouldn’t have believed you.

“I didn’t see us being in this gym, to be honest with you,” Gunnare said Tuesday after practice. “I’m just so proud of this team and what we’ve been able to do.”

What the Thunderbirds have done is put together a 12-game winning streak since that loss at Laramie County Community College to win the North sub-region and earn the right to host the Region IX Tournament for the second time in three years. The 15th-ranked T-Birds (26-3) face McCook Community College in Thursday’s final quarterfinal game at Swede Erickson Thunderbird Gym.

The T-Birds figure to have their hands full with McCook (22-9), which has five players averaging double-digit points. Makenna Bodette, a 6-foot forward, leads the Indians with averages of 14.2 points and 8.8 rebounds, respectively.

“McCook is balanced and they have three or four kids who are capable of making multiple 3-pointers,” Gunnare said. “If that’s happening on the same night we could be in trouble. And Bodette is one of the more complete post players we’ve played against.”

Making things tougher for the T-Birds is that they are down to just eight healthy players after 5-10 freshman forward Juneau Jones sprained an ankle last week and won’t be available. Jones, who was recently named to the Region IX all-defensive team, averages 8.6 points and a team-leading 6.4 rebounds per game.

Without Jones, the T-Birds will likely need to get extended minutes from freshman forward Kammie Ragsdale (Pine Bluffs) and hope that 6-2 sophomore Reka Soos, who is still working her way back from an injury, can give them a lift off the bench.

Having already lost starters Bailey Johnson and Nazli Bayazit to injuries during the season, the T-Birds have learned to adapt.

“We started with 15 (players) and we have a solid eight right now,” sophomore forward Mya Jones, Juneau’s sister, offered. “We just have to stay together as a team and keep working. We have to focus on everything, offensively and defensively.”

Casper was able to overcome its previous injuries thanks in large part to the play of freshmen Natalia Otkhmezuri and Marija Bakic and sophomores Jones and Raquel Ferrer-Bernad.

Otkhmezuri leads the team in scoring at 15.5 points per game and is shooting 44.1 percent from distance. Bakic (10.4) and Jones (10.2) also average in double figures while Ferrer-Bernad averages 6.6 points and leads the T-Birds in assists and steals. Otkhmezuri, Mya Jones and Ferrer-Bernad were All-Region IX selections.

The Casper-McCook winner will face the winner between Otero Junior College and Eastern Wyoming College in Friday’s late semifinal. No. 2 Western Nebraska Community College and No. 21 Gillette College are the teams to beat on the other side of the bracket.

Gunnare, however, refuses to look past Thursday.

“We’re not looking at it as three games in three nights,” he said. “We’re looking at what we have to do to win Thursday.”

The longtime coach is counting on the hometown fans to provide a boost for his team. The T-Birds are 13-1 at The Swede this season.

“I think we’ll have a great crowd Thursday,” he said, “but I think the longer we hang around the more excitement there will be and the bigger crowds we’ll get. And if the crowd has a lot of energy I think it helps block out some of that fatigue we might have.”

Gunnare knows that every team has to deal with injuries and bumps and bruises at this point of the season, so he’s not holding a pity party for his team. Besides, the T-Birds have already shown they can overcome adversity.

“Typically we have the luxury of having great depth, but we don’t have that going into the tournament,” he explained. “But regardless of what happens this weekend it has been a great year.”

Follow sports editor Jack Nowlin on Twitter @CASJackN

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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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