DEANNA Smith returned to the Perry Lakes Hawks with the mission to bring the club back to the success it had been used to but even she couldn’t have pictured her first season as head coach turning out any more perfectly.
Smith had grown accustomed to success with the Lady Hawks early in her career playing in the 2008 SBL championship where she was also Grand Final MVP and MVP of the league that season.
On the back of her remarkable professional playing career across the WNBL with the AIS, Canberra Capitals, Adelaide Lightning, Perth Lynx, Sydney Uni Flames, Bendigo Spirit and West Coast Waves, and stints in Europe, Smith returned to Perry Lakes to finish her career.
She had previously had an SBL stint as a player-coach at the Cockburn Cougars, but ahead of the 2015 season she was back at the Hawks and continued to be one of the league’s elite players up until retiring following the 2016 semi-final defeat to the Joondalup City Wolves.
With CJ Jackson ready to step down as head coach at Perry Lakes, it was a natural fit for Smith to step into the role and it couldn’t have turned out any more perfectly.
The signs were already promising in the off-season with Nat Burton returning to the club, Gabby O’Sullivan signing up and a core group featuring Toni Farnworth, Lauren Jeffers, Sarah Donovan, Kate Anthony and Emily Burton all continuing who Smith had played alongside.
The result in the finish was Perry Lakes claiming the regular season championship, beating the Cockburn Cougars and Willetton Tigers in the first two rounds of the playoffs, and then putting together an outstanding Grand Final to defeat the Mandurah Magic 59-48 at Bendat Basketball Centre.
That secured the Hawks their seventh Women’s SBL championship and the first since 2008.
Smith certainly couldn’t hide her emotions after the victory because of what it meant to the club and the players for the hard work that they have put, which she saw firsthand firstly as their teammate and then coach.
“Oh my goodness, wow I don’t know how to describe the feeling. I’m just really proud of the girls and it’s not a relief now, I’m just stoked. They played their butts off, they played hard, they fought and to come out with the win was fantastic,” Smith told www.sbl.asn.au after the Grand Final.
“Championships aren’t won every day and some players go through a whole career without ever winning one or getting to a Grand Final so you can never take it for granted. It does mean a lot to all of the girls and you cherish the ones that you are in win or lose, but this will be one of those that we will remember forever.”
Farnworth was named Grand Final MVP and deservedly so for her dominant performance that saw her finish with 26 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots.
Remarkably it was the first championship of her senior basketball career. Smith couldn’t have been prouder of the leadership Farnworth provided along with Perth Lynx WNBL teammate Nat Burton.
“Toni hit some big shots when it counted and to me Nat copped a lot of attention in the post but for her to keep her cool and focus in on defence, and get those rebounds and chase after it offensively shows the phenomenal player that she is,” she said.
“It’s easy for people to lose their bundle with that kind of pressure but she just stepped up in other ways and that’s why she is such a champion.”
It wasn’t just the big names who delivered for the Lady Hawks, they won the title because of their tremendous depth and that shone through in the Grand Final.
Magic star import Nici Gilday was threatening to take her team all the way to the title until Janique Kautsky came on in the last quarter and a bit to put the clamps on her.
She was another player to return to play under Smith at Perry Lakes in 2017 and her defensive performance in the last quarter on Gilday went a long way to ensure the Lady Hawks’ triumphed.
“Janique was out for a lot of the second half of the season with a hamstring and she was potentially going to tear it if she got out of second gear, but I just told her to go do the defensive job and job on offence,” Smith said.
“She was a critical piece for us right down the end. It wasn’t a plan to save her to play on Nici until that late in the game.
“I was about to put Toni on her but then she got her third foul so I had to change that, and she was hitting some massive shots even though LJ was doing exactly what I wanted on her. But those jumpers just kept going in so I wanted to go with some size against her.
“Then when I couldn’t put Toni on her, the assistants came up and suggest Janique and I gave her a go. She was fantastic and she did what we know she can do for us.”
Another player to come up huge on the big stage of the Grand Final was Hawks point guard Lauren Jeffers. She finished the night with 16 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
Smith couldn’t be happier for her and more proud of her.
“She was very undervalued before this season and now this year she stepped up and showed what she can do. I believed all season in her and she continued to step up for me,” she said.
“I really value that from her and she’s been in career-best form as a result. To then see her play like that on this stage, I’m really rapt for her and for all of the girls.
“I have asked above and beyond of them and pushed them to the max, and challenged them to be better, and they have taken everything in their stride. I’m really proud of them and I pushed that defence wins championship and it did.”
Smith isn’t sure how the feeling of winning the championship as coach at Perry Lakes would compare to doing it at a club she didn’t have such a strong history with, but she sure wouldn’t change a thing about it.
“I don’t know if it means more than if you did it elsewhere, but it’s a club that you love and believe in, and that you know have the full support of. It’s more about the girls as well so it’s about the organisation fully backing you and in turn your players and coaching staff,” Smith said.
“It’s more about the Hawks family that is so special and it’s more a credit to the organisation that former players want to come back to the club to play and coach here, and stay here when you retire. That’s a big credit to the club.”
Photo by Croc Photography (Belinda Pike)