Dwight Gunnare knows what it takes to win a Region IX tournament.
Now in his 11th season as the head coach of the Casper College women’s basketball team, Gunnare has led the Thunderbirds to three Region IX championships, including last year.
“We need to draw on the experience of our sophomores because they are the ones who played in it last year,” Gunnare said. “But I do believe they can carry that experience over and I think they do understand how important it is to relay that to the freshmen.”
The T-Birds (25-6) defeated Northwest College 81-38 on Friday in the first round of the tournament at Swede Erickson Thunderbird Gym. But if the T-Birds are going to repeat for the first time since 2010-11 they’ll have to do so on the road, with South sub-region winner Western Nebraska Community College hosting the Region IX tournament. Casper College, which won the North sub-region for the second year in a row, takes on South No. 4 seed Otero Junior College in Thursday’s quarterfinals. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m.
“We won the tournament last year,” sophomore guard Maggie Justinak said, “but it’s going to be a little bit of a different environment. We’re going to have to play through adversity no matter where we are playing.”
Justinak, along with fellow sophomores Lucie Hoskova, Jaye Johnson and Nerea Baena all played valuable minutes for last year’s title-winning team, with the 5-foot-10 Hoskova earning all-Region IX honors.
Hoskova has been even better this season, leading the team with 16.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Johnson, a Natrona County product, has added 11.6 points per game while Baena has pitched in 10.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per contest. Justinak, a graduate of Rock Springs, has scored 9.9 points per game. Those four have taken it upon themselves to show the way for a group of freshmen that includes starting point guard Raquel Ferrer-Bernad, guards Ashley Tehau (Kaycee), Bailey Johnson and Nazli Bayazit and center Reka Soos.
“I think we’re as ready as we can be,” Justinak said. “Right now we’re trying to show the freshmen as much hard work as we can so that they’ll be ready.”
The T-Birds have already defeated Otero (15-12) twice this season, winning 81-45 on Nov. 2 and 68-65 on Nov. 29. Gunnare expects Thursday’s game to be more in line with the teams’ second meeting in which the T-Birds had to rally from a halftime deficit.
“Otero is very similar to us,” he said. “They have three really good scorers and they have an athletic wing who is a tough matchup.”
Grace O’Neil leads the Rattlers with 15.9 points per game, followed by Hilda Garcia (10.4) and Laura Prado-Morales (9.9). Post player Alessia Capley chips in 7.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
The T-Birds are 9-3 against the other teams in the field, with victories against every team except McCook Community College, which they didn’t play this season. If Casper College defeats Otero it would face the Laramie County Community College/Northeastern Junior College winner in the semifinals. No. 21 Western Nebraska lurks on the other side of the bracket.
Gunnare, however, remains optimistic about his team’s chances to win it all.
“If we can string three good games together it’s a possibility,” he said. “But we have to beat Otero first and then we can worry about the next one.”