The Western Nebraska Community College men’s basketball goal all season is to repeat as Region IX champions.
That trek will being Thursday at the Region IX tournament in Sheridan, Wyoming, when the South No. 1 seed Cougars battle Eastern Wyoming College at 3 p.m. at the Bruce Hoffman Golden Dome on the campus of Sheridan College.
The Cougars, 23-7, and the Lancers, 11-19, are no strangers to each other as the two Highway 26 teams will look to advance to the semifinals on Friday.
Assistant coach Billy Engel said they need to play defense to top EWC and the rest of their opponents at regionals.
“We know quite a bit about EWC after seeing them twice in the regular season,” Engel said. “They are a very disciplined and fundamental team. They’ll want to slow the game down and take great shots at the end of the shot clock. To win, we’re going to need to turn up the pressure defensively, force them to play faster than they want to, and rebound the basketball as a team. If we are able to do that we will be able to get out in transition offensively. Our athleticism will be hard for them to handle in transition.”
WNCC earned a bye into the quarterfinals while the Lancers had to win a first-round game on Saturday. EWC did just that as the No. 6 seed from the north when they upended No. 3 Western Wyoming Community College 63-49 in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
WNCC and EWC will be one of four quarterfinal games on Thursday. North 2 seed Casper College will open the day when they face South 3 seed Trinidad State Junior College. The 1 and 3 p.m. winners will face each other in the semifinals on Friday at 5 p.m.
The other side of the quarterfinal bracket pits South 2 seed North Platte Community College battling South 3 seed Central Wyoming College at 5 p.m. followed by North 1 seed Sheridan taking on South 5 seed Northeastern Junior College at 7 p.m. Those two winners will battle in the semifinals at 7 p.m. Friday.
The championship is slated for 7 p.m. on Saturday with the winner automatically qualifying for the NJCAA national tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas, March 18-23.
Engel said it will not be an easy tournament. Casper enters the tourney ranked 6th in the nation with a 29-2 record while Sheridan is 11th also with a 29-2 mark. WNCC and Casper could meet in the semifinals.
“The Region IX tournament will be incredibly tough to get through,” Engel said. “Multiple teams on both sides of the bracket are going to be very competitive, especially considering Casper and Sheridan are both ranked in the top 15 nationally (6th and 11th respectively).”
WNCC head coach Cory Fehringer, who is in his third year as head coach, said the key to winning is playing unselfish and being good teammates.
“Whoever is unselfish and gives the best effort, keeps the best attitude through good and bad nights and who is really driven to win three straight days, that is a tall cup of water no matter who you are and how good you are,” he said. “You will have to take down three different people in three straight days.”
In Fehringer’s three years as the Cougar head coach, WNCC has achieved winning. The Cougars have won 20 or more games the past three seasons, which is the first time that has happened since 1987-88 through 2000-01 when the Cougars had 14 straight years of 20-plus win seasons.
Last year was the tip of the iceberg for the Cougars as WNCC won their first Region IX title since 2001. That 17-year hiatus ended last season as the Cougars won four games at the regional tournament in breaking that regional title drought.
WNCC started last year’s magical run to a title with a 116-61 first-round win over McCook followed by a quarterfinal win over Central Wyoming 77=67. WNCC then topped Sheridan 99-87 before beating the home team Otero Junior College 86-78 for the title.
At nationals, WNCC won its opening game 87-73 before falling to Northwest Florida State College.
The last time the Lancers were in the Region IX tournament was 2013 when they lost to Gillette 84-77 in the first round. EWC last won the Region IX title in 2008 and won back-to-back titles in 2003-2004.
This year WNCC and EWC will open up the Final 8 teams at regionals. The two squads faced each other twice this season. WNCC earned a hard-fought 73-68 win in November at Torrington, before bettering the Lancers 96-70 at Cougar Palace in February.
WNCC is averaging 93.3 points a contest and are shooting 40.9 percent from beyond the arc. Dru Kuxhausen is just 11 treys away from breaking the season 3-point made record of 122 set by Rick Kinner n the mid-1990s. Kuxhausen, a Scottsbluff High graduate, has made 112 treys this season while averaging 15.2 points a game.
Jervay Green, the University of Nebraska recruit, is also nearing a record. Green is xx points from breaking the career scoring record of 1,304 set by Bernard Garner when he played for WNCC. Garner also played two years at Nebraska. Green has 1,226 points so far. Green has scored 703 points this season and is just one of five players to score 700 points in a season. He needs 39 points to move into second place ahead of Billy Stewart, who scored 741 points in 1966. Eric Gore holds the record of 1,033 points in the 1989-90 season. Gore played just one season at WNCC.