DEFENDING Women’s SBL champions the Perry Lakes Hawks loom large as a sleeping giant in the bottom half of the top eight heading into the 2018 playoffs and coach Deanna Smith has marvelled at the continued growth of Grand Final MVP Toni Farnworth in all areas of her game.
Smith’s first season in charge of the Lady Hawks couldn’t have gone any better. They finished the regular season with a 20-2 record and as minor premiers before then going through the playoffs beating the Cockburn Cougars and Willetton Tigers unbeaten.
They then won the Grand Final over the Mandurah Magic and in her first season as a non-playing coach in the SBL, Smith became a championship winner and hopes were high again coming into 2018.
It sure didn’t start well for Perry Lakes though. Nat Burton missed the first nine games and then Farnworth missed a period too with her commitments for New Zealand at the Commonwealth Games.
The result was the Hawks ending up losing nine of their opening 10 games and things became desperate by the time Burton returned.
But perhaps even Smith couldn’t have predicted just how well Perry Lakes would be able to get on a roll and they have now won eight of the last 10 matches to sit in seventh position heading into the second last round with a 9-11 record.
They appear guaranteed of a playoff position now and after being 1-9, that’s quite the achievement.
The likes of Annika Renkema, Bella Green, Emily Burton, Maddison Hooper, Kristan Teasdale, Sam Ashby, Emma Clarke and Milli McCarthy are among the more unheralded players to make their impact for the Hawks in the back end of the season.
But for Smith, it’s the continued growth of her Perth Lynx WNBL and New Zealand international star Farnworth that is most significant.
She won the Grand Final MVP last year and deservedly so, but Smith feels her all-round game and leadership has gone to another level in 2018. Combine that with the return of Nat Burton, and everything has come together in recent weeks.
“Toni is playing some outstanding basketball and so close to triple-doubles for the last four or five games. She has really stepped up with not only her basketball court presence, but her leadership amongst the group,” Smith said.
“She has been a real key for us with the way that she has lifted our whole group by leading by example and giving those younger players confidence around her. I think she is playing the best I’ve seen her ever play. She has added a whole new element to her game with her leadership and poise.
“She has always been a quality player and now you are seeing that leadership come through as well. Combine her with Nat and you cannot devalue what Nat brings with her defence, leadership, talk, presence.
“She just attracts so many people and she does receive a lot of physicality yet she keeps it together. Having those two players as that grounding for our team is really important and you can’t devalue what both of them are bringing to our young group.”
With Farnworth and Nat Burton leading the way with support of captain Kate Anthony and Gabby O’Sullivan, they have good leaders for the young players to learn from and Smith couldn’t be happier with the development of the youth at Perry Lakes while they are still winning games.
“It is exciting with the faith we are putting in our young players and we’ve brought up Millie McCarthy who is still only bottom-age in the 18s. She’s started for us the last four games in Gabby’s absence but we threw her in the deep end and she’s done a really good job,” Smith said.
“We have Sam Ashby and Bella Green playing really big minutes who are still under-18 players as well. For me to be able to get some minutes into them around players like Toni and Nat who they can learn from will be just invaluable for them.
“They are really stepping up as well and our turnover count has been super low this second half of the year and we are valuing possession, but it’s also the leadership group of Kate, Toni and Nat around those young players that are giving that confidence.
“It’s not just the court time, it’s the people around them that is helping them with the support and direction, and the other leadership that is important for young players to be able to achieve success in those situations.”
While Smith always had faith that Perry Lakes would come good at some stage during 2018, by the time you get to 1-9 things are starting to get a little desperate.
But they were able to steady things with an impressive win over the second placed Perth Redbacks at Belmont Oasis and that kickstarted this run they are now on.
“It’s quite scary in those situations because you believe in it and you know what the group can achieve when they are together and you’ve got consistency, it’s just taken a really long time to get there,” Smith said.
“You just hope that it’s not too late and it has happened for us quite late in the season and we’re still vying for that sixth, seventh, eighth position. But you know that you have a group of girls who are going to fight, put in and play hard.
“At the end of the day, our vision has always been big picture of bring the young kids in and how that works with our senior, more experienced players. That component is starting to gel which is why we’re starting to perform how we are.”
Now that Perry Lakes have games to finish the regular season against Willetton and Stirling, teams they are vying for playoff positions with, Smith is getting excited at what the playoffs could hold.
As opposed to last year when the Hawks were the minor premiers with the target on their back, they now are the team the top sides could be worried about and whether it’s Lakeside, Perth or Rockingham, they won’t have an easy first round opponent in the form of the defending champions.
“I’m excited but I’m also nervous. I think we’ve now put ourselves in a great position and we control our own destiny and you can’t ask for more than that,” she said.
“Our focus is on continuing to build and grow as a group, and individuals and then taking that confidence into each game. With two games to go, we’re in a pretty good position to make the eight and that’s the first goal ticked. Then it’s anything possible from there.
“It’s always hard being that team that everyone is chasing, but come finals it’s anyone’s game and our focus doesn’t change. It’s about continuing to build on the things that we pride ourselves on as a team and as a club.
“Hopefully with taking care of that business it will see us continuing to win and grow as a group. That’s the most important thing. I think we’re in a good position and it is a tough season when you finish first, second or third and then there are other teams that don’t come together until late.
“I’d probably be a little bit worried about facing us if I was one of those top teams and I think there some other teams in the bottom half of the eight to be worried about as well. It’s an exciting time of the year, it’s what you put all the hard work in for and we’re really looking forward to it.”
It’s also been a big couple of weeks for Smith in her personal life after Steve Black popped the question and the couple are now engaged.
That was a big moment in her life and the pair continue to support each other even if it means Black support her Hawks team and her supporting his Tigers’ men’s team.
They both were minor premiers last year and now both are on track to be part of the finals again in 2018 but it doesn’t mean there’s not an awkward moment or two on a Saturday night like this week when the Hawks face the Tigers at Willetton Basketball Stadium.
“He popped the question last week and I said yes of course so we are getting married. I’m pretty over the moon and excited about that. It’s pretty big,” Smith said.
“We try to wipe it out while we are coaching but you’ll see Steve cheering for me during the girls game and then me cheering for him in the boys’ game. But at the end of the day, we both mean business and are all about our teams and clubs.
“It’s just nice to have that support behind you from your partner at the end of the day. When we go to each other’s venues, we’re there for each other and understand the time and effort that goes into what we do as coaches.
“For me it’s about going there to get the job done with my team and then watching him do his thing. It is an exciting time of the year and hopefully we’ll both be there come finals time.”