Casper College basketball teams already know they’ll be playing in the playoffs, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of this week’s final regular season games. The Thunderbirds host Eastern Wyoming College on Wednesday before wrapping up the regular season Saturday at Western Wyoming College.
The Casper College women’s team, which climbed to No. 15 in the latest NJCAA rankings, has already clinched the top seed in the Region IX North sub-region. That means the T-Birds (23-4, 8-0) will host the Region IX tournament early next month.
“We landed the tournament organization,” head coach Dwight Gunnare said, “but those two games could have a huge impact on us getting an overall offer if we don’t win the Region IX tournament. So there is still a lot of importance in each of these matches.
The T-Birds have won 32 consecutive games against opponents in the Northern sub-region and have won the sub-region each of the last five years.
Sophomore goalie Joseana Vaz leads the team with 13.1 ppg, with sophomore Kate Robertson (Natrona County) at 12.1 ppg. A big key to the T-Birds’ success, however, was a balanced offense behind Vaz and Robertson.
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Sophomores Dejaan Schuler and Belen Morales Lopez; and rookie Joslin Igo (Douglas), Sandra Frau and Julia Palomo are all averaging at least 6.3 points per game.
“It’s essential that every team is balanced,” Gunnare said. “Because if you have to go through one or two players every night to have a chance of winning, there are enough good coaches to limit those two players. And we’ve had great bench points all year.
“We have individuals who fit in very well in certain situations, so we have a lot of flexibility.”
The T-Birds won 77-64 at Eastern Wyoming on Jan. 29 with Vaz and Robertson combining for 35 points and 16 rebounds and Rosalinda Gonzalez adding 13 points.
The men’s team (15-11, 6-2) is still in position to finish top of the sub-region standings, but with the winner from the South hosting the Region IX tournament this year, the T-Birds are not don’t have the same luxury. However, the T-Birds still have a lot to play for.
If Casper College finishes first or second in the North, it will receive a bye to the Region IX tournament at Otero Junior College in La Junta, Colorado. If the T-Birds finish third or fourth, they will hold a playoff on Feb. 26.
“It’s a fun position to be in right now knowing that we’re almost in control of our own destiny,” head coach Shaun Gutting said. “And right now we’re confident that we can play with anyone.”
The T-Birds have demonstrated this in the game of the sub-region. On Saturday, they picked up an 82-59 win over Laramie County Community College to avenge an earlier loss to the Golden Eagles. Casper College has won three in a row and seven of its last nine to rebound from an 8-9 start.
“Our non-conference didn’t go as well as expected, so we knew we weren’t going to get a global offer,” Gutting said. “So what really mattered was our performance in conference. Obviously when you start winning certain games, it helps solidify the thought process.
“Since the start of the conference, this group has seen major growth thanks to their preparation and taking their opponents seriously.”
Rashaun Agee, a 6-foot-7 forward from Chicago, has been at the forefront of the T-Birds’ resurgence. The redshirt freshman is averaging a double-double with 19.6 points and 11.1 rebounds.
His teammates offered plenty of help as PJ Ngambi adds 13.0 points per game, and Dwayne Walker (9.0), Jaren Harris (8.5) and Peter Turay (8.2) average 25.7 points per game.
The T-Birds’ defense has been key to the team’s recent push.
“At first we were dominating the teams,” Gutting said. “Lately our guys have shown a great ability to lock down the defense and be able to make games.
Follow sportswriter Jack Nowlin on Twitter @CASJackN