VERY few players can impact the game in so many ways or be a match-winner without needing to score but that is the case with South West Slammers workhorse Brian Voelkel and he is desperate to go one better than his first SBL season.
Voelkel had a standout 2015 season with the Slammers almost averaging a triple-double in the team that was led by playing-coach Ty Harrelson and who made it all the way to the grand final before coming up short against the Joondalup City Wolves in the decider.
The New York-native gave the British Basketball League a try last year but it didn’t pan out and his choice to return to the place he had so much success initially was an easy one when he was weighing up his options for 2017.
He was excited to return to the Slammers and then chomping at the bit to hit the floor having been forced to sit out the opening three games, but since his return it’s no surprise that South West has emerged as a genuine championship contender.
After losing the opening four games, the Slammers have now won 12 of their past 16 heading into Friday night’s blockbuster with the Willetton Tigers at Eaton Recreation Centre that will just happen to see Harrelson make a surprise return.
Voelkel is having every bit as significant an impact this season as he did in 2015 for the Slammers too, if not more. Despite the SBL having gone down to 40 minutes a game from 48, he is averaging 13.7 points, 17.0 rebounds and 8.6 assists.
Those numbers are simply remarkable when you consider he’s doing it all inside 40 minutes, but it’s his sheer competitive nature and determination to never give up on any contest, possession or loose ball that make him a nightmare to play against, and a dream teammate.
He deserves to be considered a genuine MVP candidate based on his all-round contribution, but his focus is on helping his team win and he is willing to do whatever he can to help that happen.
“I’m pretty much doing what I do. I’ve been able to get some big rebounding games and my passing numbers might have gone down a little bit with the assists, but I think I’m scoring the ball a little better. If I can score and rebound, and help the team play together then I’m pretty happy,” Voelkel said.
“After a game it’s usually the rebounding that I look at first on the box score, then assists. I think if I’m rebounding the ball I’m helping the team out so that’s what I take most pride in.
“I’ve kind of built my identity and that’s how I found my way in college by being able to do the little things that other people weren’t able to do. It kind of started there and I’ve tried do that since by rebounding, passing and scoring when I need to. I just try to help the team win any way I can.”
Voelkel senses there is a similar feeling in the Slammers team of 2017 to 2015 where they feel they genuinely can win the championship.
With Clive Weeden leading the way inside up against all the league’s best bigs, Tre Nichols and Michael Lay combining for what is likely the most dynamic back court duo in the SBL, and Chris Douglas and Teny Puot playing important roles too, it’s hard to disagree that they will be a real threat entering the playoffs.
“I have a similar feeling this year to two years ago. Even though we had some peaks and valleys along the way, everyone still thought we were going to get to that championship game. I think it’s the same this year. We feel like we are one of the best teams and if we play the right way, there’s nothing stopping us really,” he said.
“I think all along we felt we could be really good but we had to prove that to the other teams, the rest of the league and anyone who’s watching. But when we play hard defensively and together offensively, we are one of the best teams in the league. If we just continue to play the right way, we can do special things this year.
“It’s fun to play on this team and the guys all know how to play, so it hasn’t been very hard to create that chemistry. It has come naturally to us and I have already played with Clive and Tre, so it was easy to reconnect with them. Mike has been terrific coming in as that veteran guy who knows the game and is a great leader, and person in the locker room. Dougy has also been playing great basketball and finding himself too which has been huge. Everyone is just coming together.”
Voelkel’s competitiveness certainly doesn’t always make him popular with the opposition and he was ejected two weeks ago in a surprise home loss to Kalamunda, but generally he doesn’t feel like anyone has been too successful getting under his skin.
But he does enjoy the challenge of someone like Ray Turner as he looks ahead to Friday’s home clash with the league-leading Tigers.
“A lot of people might think they can get under my skin, but there’s not really anyone I can think of. There’s some competitors though. Ray Turner is someone I do look forward to playing against. I’ll always give him respect and I’m looking forward to this Friday given he’s one of the better rebounders and players in the league,” Voelkel said.
“I think we realised last time and with some other games that we are very close to the upper echelon of teams in the league. This game on Friday is an opportunity to show we are one of the best teams. We are excited by the challenge and if we can get a win it just sends a message so hopefully we can come out on top.”
Looking back on the start to the season where he was forced to sit out the first three weeks, it certainly left Voelkel feeling restless but he was determined to make an immediate impact.
“It was tough because obviously you are training with all the guys and working together, and then you can’t be out there,” he said.
“You never like to see us lose and I just wanted to be back out there as part of the team because when you are not playing, you don’t fully feel part of the group. But it was good how we quickly gelled together and got things rolling right away when I was back out there.
“I think we are in a good place and that feels like a long time ago now. We are looking towards playoffs and trying to win that championship.”
Voelkel is yet to decide where his next move is post this SBL season and that could impact what he does in 2018. But he is more than open to the prospect of returning to the Slammers, but more immediately he would love to bring a title to Bunbury.
“It would be incredible because two years ago we saw how excited the community got with us back to a championship game. We’d love to do that for the community in Bunbury as much as the club and ourselves,” Voelkel said.
“I’m definitely happy here. It’s a great group of guys on the team and the community is incredible to be part of. I’ve absolutely loved my time and whether I continue to make this home I’ll kind of see, but I can’t think of too many places better than Bunbury.
“I would like to come back here, but before that I’ll see about playing somewhere else depending on how that goes. I’ll start to think about that pretty soon because I might have to start somewhere pretty quickly after we finish up here.”
Photo by Belinda Pike (Croc Photography)