More resolve than ever
After a year away, Thunderbirds hungry for a return trip to nationals
After 30 years of coaching, Dwight Gunnare has learned a few things. One is that Mother Athletics always makes the call. Sometimes things go your way and sometimes they don’t.
Last year a whole bunch of things went Casper College’s way. Except for that one night in the semi finals of the Region IX tournament. Mother Athletics blew in a cold shooting wind and well, the T-Birds’ quest for a Region IX championship three-peat went awry.
Clearly, the 2011-12 campaign was one of the best seasons in program history; the T-Birds finished 30-3 and Gunnare earned Region IX Coach of the Year honors.
“It was a pretty special year,” Gunnare says. “Not reaching your No. 1 goal (nationals) you have to be careful not to let it diminish an amazing season.”
So this year’s Thunderbirds, many of whom played key roles in that 30-win campaign, have a lot to live up to. Of course, they knew that coming in. In his four seasons, Gunnare’s teams have averaged 28 wins per year and won two championships.
Rosalie Cutri, the point guard and leading scorer from a year ago, has taken her talents to Boise State. KeArrow Jenkins (South Carolina Upstate) and Madara Gulbe (Texas A&M Kingsville) have also departed.
The good news for T-Bird fans is that five sophomores are back. Four of those T-Birds – Shelby Garska, Taylor Kofoed (who got married over the summer and changed her last name from Diehl), Shelby Stewart and Fayne Tyson – started at some point during last year’s campaign. Ashley Jones, the other sophomore, has already contributed early in the season.
Gunnare is cautiously optimistic about his guard line. Stewart and Kofoed both averaged about 10 points per game last year at the two-guard position. Garska started 20-plus games alongside Cutri and has inherited the starting job at the point this year. Bailey Holland was expected to help Garska there but the Denver native is redshirting. “Our guard play will determine our overall consistent success,” Gunnare knows.
Tyson was valuable off the bench last season and can play all three front line spots. And on paper at least, it looks like Gunnare got her some help inside.
Two players from Poland (a country that has produced several T-Bird All Americans) should give the T-Birds a legitimate inside option. Agata Dobrowolska will remind fans of Justyna Podziemska (who went on to star at Wyoming) because of her ability to move and shoot from outside. Marlena Muszak is a legitimate 6-3 post player. In addition to those two, Gunnare can call on Cheyanne Balster (6-0, Casper Natrona) and Whitney Lott (6-1, Cottonwood Heights, Utah).
“I think we can hang our hat on an inside game that will give us different options,” Gunnare says. “I hope we will be able to attack an opposing team’s weakness with more versatility.”
The strength of Gunnare’s recruiting class is not just represented in the size department. Kendal Levine (Utah) and Aaliyah Dunbar (Rochester, N.Y.) will back up Garska at the point. Ragen Wilson (Laramie), Kaylee Swope (Miles City) and Meghan Becker have had good fall practices. Those three give Gunnare some valuable depth at the swing spots.
The key for this team, Gunnare says, is how well it can improve shooting the ball. During preseason, shooting percentages inside and outside were down from expectations.
These T-Birds will face a league that is better than a year ago, according to Gunnare. “Parity in Region IX has improved dramatically,” Gunnare says, adding that he hopes to get through a tough early non-conference schedule without physical or mental injury. “I believe Sheridan is better, Gillette is better.” That early schedule includes Southern Idaho, Salt Lake CC and Snow College.
“Every year, there is no calendar. You evaluate your team, your individuals and focus on getting better.”
The only calendar in the back of Gunnare’s mind is March. That’s when he hopes to have his flock ready for another run.
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