IT’S fair to say the Women’s SBL championship defence of the Willetton Tigers hasn’t quite gone to plan and still has its challenges in the absence of Kate Malpass, Desiree Kelley and Lara Napier, but coach Simon Parker is confident they can make their mark on 2017.
The Tigers stormed their way to the 2016 championship beating the Rockingham Flames in the semi finals who beat them in heartbreaking fashion in the grand final of 2015, and then winning a thrilling decider over the Joondalup City Wolves on the back of a spectacular effort from Malpass.
Willetton was rocked two weeks ago with a 44-point loss in Mandurah to the league-leading Magic which in particular highlighted the Tigers’ challenges without Malpass, Kelley and Napier up against a back court featuring Casey Mihovilovich and Nici Gilday.
But the Tigers responded well on Saturday night beating Rockingham by 23 points and despite the challenges this season has had and will continue to have over the next few weeks, they are actually well placed with a 9-7 record in fifth position.
Parker is looking forward to having Malpass and Kelley both back for the last two weeks of the regular season. Those three games will be crucial against the Stirling Senators, Lakeside Lightning and the Joondalup City Wolves.
The Senators or Lightning look likely to be Willetton’s first round playoff opponent right now and Parker is confident the Tigers can hold the fort down until then, and then be ready to make a good run at defending their championship with a full squad available.
“We should be at full strength for about the last two weeks and by that stage hopefully we are there and there abouts. We have some games we should be getting before then and we are looking forward to still putting ourselves in a good position even before they come back,” Parker said.
“It’s the changing of the guard a bit this season. Having said that, I wouldn’t want to be one of the top three or four teams playing a full strength Rockingham, Willo or Wanneroo in the first round of the playoffs either.”
While big losses like the ones the Tigers suffered in Mandurah and even a couple of weeks before that to the Wolves are tough take, Parker hopes his younger brigade can learn something from those. He will continue to back them in over these next several weeks.
“It’s hard to take a lot from it because when you start getting beaten your head goes down, but we are trying to teach them that no matter what happens you just stick with what we asked you to do. If it works then it does and if it doesn’t, then so be it but it should be good for you in the long haul,” he said.
“You can be angry after those losses for 15 minutes but then you worry about how you can improve on the things you are trying to do. As long as they are learning from it then you can take something from it.
“It’s probably a bit early to make that call on going for the youth, but we are going to have to anyway while we’re without Kate and Des because they are the only players we have available. For this stretch of four or five games those nine players will be our team and they will be getting every opportunity.”
Kelley is one Willetton player who had taken her game to the next level in 2017 before heading overseas for a holiday which will still see her miss the next four games.
She’ll be back for the last two games of the season and Parker can’t wait because she’s one player they just can’t replace.
“I think she’s back for the Wanneroo game. We play Stirling that Friday night and she’ll be back for the Saturday night so we lose her for seven weeks. She just is one of those players we can’t replace,” Parker said.
“We don’t have another three man even though Sophie Maines will be stepping into that spot. She shows good signs but she’s young and has a lot to learn still. It’s a big hole to fill and the same with Lara, we really missed her on-ball defence.”
It goes without saying that five-time championship winning captain and point guard Malpass can’t be replaced either.
She has been out with a calf injury of late and will now head to the United States to take in some of the remarkable WNBA journey of Sami Whitcomb with the Seattle Storm.
But Parker expects her back and healthy soon after the school holidays finish and he knows what a difference-maker she is out on the floor.
“She’s got a calf strain which you don’t plan for obviously. We’re not looking at the short-term with her, so she’s probably going to go away for a couple of weeks but she wouldn’t have been right to return in that time anyway,” he said.
“Hopefully by the time she comes back from the US she’ll be right because when she’s one the court, man we are good. We are controlled and everyone knows what’s going on. She gives us that leadership that we are lacking with her not out there.”
Sometimes things happen that put basketball into perspective of being just a game and that was the case back on April 28 when Lara Napier was involved in a terrible accident.
Somehow the Tigers were able to put that behind them and beat Rockingham that night and the South West Slammers two days later, but there were plenty of worrying times where Napier’s condition was uncertain.
Basketball was certainly the last thing anyone was thinking about with her at the time and the weeks after, but suddenly two months later and Parker is finding himself having to hold her back from returning to the practice floor.
Her recovery has been so spectacular that she would play now if her coach and doctors would allow it. But that won’t be happening. Not this year anyway. But Napier is eyeing off a return for the start of 2018 and that’s inspirational for everyone, including Parker.
“When something like that happens to someone you know then everything changes with your mentality and everything. If it’s someone a bit removed it’s a bit different,” Parker said.
“But she has made a couple of appearances at training now and she is itching to get back on the court actually. She is our catalyst on defence and we don’t have that without her so we’ve really missed her out there.
“It’s a great positive to see her up and about. From what happened in that crash to where she is at now, it could have been so much worse. I told her that she’s now gone from being a rocket scientist to an engineer so we had a laugh about that. She wants to play but obviously it’s not going to happen this year.
“She does want to get back into it but the start of next season would be getting close to 12 months on and she will be fully recovered by then. Her recovery is really good right now and she is about 90 per cent recovered which is good news for her, and everyone who was worried about her obviously.”
Photo by June Halliday