THE future of the Kalamunda Eastern Suns appeared decidedly cloudy when Michael Clarke took over as coach coming into the 2016 Men’s SBL season but upon his reappointment for 2018, he is proud of the development the last two seasons and wants to continue driving that forward.
It was always a significant job Clarke was stepping into. Not only was it his first head coaching role after spending time at Virginia Commonwealth University before returning home, but the Eastern Suns had only made playoffs twice since joining the SBL in 2008.
The last three years had been tough with Kalamunda only winning 12 games and losing 66 with the worst of those in 2015 when they went 2-24.
That means that Clarke’s job was to virtually try building up the program from scratch at the start of 2016.
But there were some encouraging signs as they won seven games, their best season since 2012 and it was largely on the back of youth.
The Suns then got even younger in 2017 following the retirements of Jarrad Prior and Travis McIlroy, but the signs were good with Courtney Belger returning after initially replacing Italian import Jacopo Marsili midway through 2016.
BELGER AT HOME WITH SUNS SO MUCH HE NEVER WANTS TO LEAVE
Rob Brandenberg had a delayed start to 2017 due to his season in Israel, but he has had a good impact since arriving as the replacement import for Brandon McGill.
But once again it’s the youth and local talent behind the Suns’ improvement again this year that has them at seven wins with four matches to go and their best form has been over their past six matches.
Kerrod Horn, Brighton Pass, Tim Squire (until his season-ending injury), Ryan Blanchett, Billy Grey, Nathan Drown, Jamieson Lewis, Jono Diaz and Theron Pinker have all shown enough to suggest they can make up a bright future at the Suns.
There has certainly been hiccups along the way in 2017 too. They lost their first five games, won three and lost eight on the trot. But the response to a shock loss to Mandurah has been tremendous with wins over Perth, Goldfields and South West, and strong showings in losses to Willetton, Joondalup and Rockingham.
Overall, Clarke has been proud of the progression they have made from where they were at coming into 2016 and wants to continue to be part of that growth.
“I think you have to say that it’s been successful when you consider where we were coming from. I’m a very hard task master, particularly on myself, but I think if I stepped back and looked at the bigger picture we have made progress and we are heading in the right direction,” Clarke said.
“It was a really big job to tackle and Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it was always going to take time, but I think we are in a pretty good place now. It feels like a rollercoaster so I guess my feelings fluctuate and maybe that says more about me than anything else.
“But I really do get excited about the prospects up here if we can just keep getting better and keep moving forward. I think we can be a powerhouse club up here. We have the benefit of a great facility and a large geographic region that we are responsible for. I think the sky is the limit if we can get something in place that has sustainability.”
The first two seasons in charge at Kalamunda was always going to be about both Clarke finding out if he wanted to coach the Suns and if the style of play he was implementing could work with the playing group.
With four games remaining in that second season, he has now been reappointed for 2018 and he has learned a lot about himself and he knows he wants to be in it for the long haul.
“The support of the club is everything. You really do need the people behind you to have your back and that’s not just the assistants and players, but the administrators and even the fans and beyond. It makes life a lot easier when you can look forward and not worry about what’s behind you,” he said.
“It was an experiment for me I suppose and it came a little quicker than I was expecting, but when I came back from America I had committed myself to wanting to be a coach. I think it challenges my character and personality traits so it’s no easy thing, but I love it and I love the guys, and the competition. It’s something that I want to continue with that’s for sure.”
Looking ahead, after seven wins last year coming off two in 2015, and now having seven with four games remaining 2017, Clarke knows that they need to continue that growth in 2018.
He has every confidence in that happening.
“Next year is when really we should start to see the momentum build and that should happen from the start of the season,” Clarke said.
“Both the last two seasons it has taken the first half for us to get our groove on initially for a variety of reasons, but next year if we can hit the ground running then I think we can really achieve some things.
“That’s what it’s all about. In a college system you get four years with a player and you need that. You can’t work miracles in a year or two.”
Just because the overall trajectory of Clarke’s two seasons in charge is going up, it doesn’t mean there hasn’t been tough moments along the way.
There were certainly teething problems last year and none more so than the 81-point Anzac Day loss to Willetton, but this season’s eight-game losing streak was something that Clarke really struggled with.
He felt the team was on the right track having won three straight and then welcoming in Brandenberg to join Belger to lead his young group. But that eight-match losing streak that culminated in losing to the bottom placed Magic at home was the last straw.
Clarke took a week off to do some soul searching and he told his players to do the same. They responded by knocking off championship contenders the Redbacks and then Clarke was back in the chair, and the last five games have strong.
That has included outstanding wins over the Slammers and Giants on the road which could have been the two best in Clarke’s time at the helm.
“The Stirling win here earlier this season was big but I certainly said to the guys after the South West win that I think that’s the best during my tenure just the way they executed. They were really impressive to me the way they went about it and it was a microcosm of our path really,” he said.
“We didn’t start out well but we stuck with it and we did what we do, and it came good when we needed it. I feel really pleased with those two wins in particular and it got us back where we needed to be.
“It’s been incredibly impressive in this stretch and quite honestly a relief. I’ve always believed in the guys and what we do, and to see it pulled out of the fire like that as it were is something I’m over the moon about. There is an element of relief because I want this club to succeed. It’s my sole motivation.”
What has been most impressive is that the form reversal hasn’t been on the back solely of Belger and Brandenberg. Belger had a night to forget against the Giants, but Ryan Blanchett stepped up for a career-high 29 points as one such example.
“It’s hard to remember how old some of these guys are and how little experience they have. They are out there mixing it in a semi-pro league and doing really well,” Clarke said.
“You can see that improvement over the course of the 18 months to now. Ryan is just one of several guys we’ve got here of exactly that kind. It’s been a pleasure to see them develop and it’s been a pleasure to bring back some of our boys home who had drifted off elsewhere. That’s a real priority for me.
“It’s always been a tenet of what we do that it’s not going to be reliant upon one or two guys. It’s not going to be the traditional system where you bring in two imports and let them do everything.
“I don’t think there’s any sustainability to that and we’ve always prided ourselves on being Suns people playing Suns basketball. We value the imports and they are central to what we do, and we get guys that are going to fit that bill, but to win these games when it hasn’t been the imports doing all the heavy lifting is a testament to where we’re trying to get to.”
Horn is another player who has developed under Clarke to the point now where he is a real difference maker in the SBL while the recruitment of Pass and Lewis has been something Clarke knew was always going to help as well.
“Kerrod has stepped up and his leadership is fantastic, and he does a lot of the tough work out there. He is in our leadership group for a reason. I’ve coached him since he was about 18 and he’s always been a favourite of mine, and I’m proud to see the way he’s developed to become one of the key players here,” Clarke said.
“Brighton is a Suns boy who we got back and Jamo I’ve known for many years, and I just knew that those guys would fit here and that they had an upside in terms of potential that hasn’t been tapped. I just love to see their confidence build and seeing them enjoy their basketball, and let everyone see what their potential really is.”