IT was always a big job for Peter Harper to take over as coach of the South West Slammers in the Women’s SBL but with three weeks of the regular season remaining they are an outside playoff chance and it’s on the back of the continued development of young players.
Following a quarter-final appearance in 2015, the Slammers went without an import and any experienced players in 2016. The result was a two-win season after which Harper was appointed coach tasked with the job of rebuilding the team into a playoff contender.
The signing of import Brittany Hodges was always going to help and so were the returns of Kate Fielding and Tori Dugan with Courtney Bayliss stepping up as the team’s true leader.
There was then the young group underneath that Harper was looking at to continue to develop and build for the future. The longer the season has gone it has been those teenagers that have provided for the most excitement.
Hodges has delivered while Fielding has provided important experience and Bayliss has been a strong leader but unfortunately the return of Dugan didn’t quite pay off once she went down with a season-ending knee injury.
The performances of 18-year-old Georgia Denehey and 15-year-old Tayah Burrows have been outstanding for the Slammers. Harper has been proud of their fight whether it ends up in a playoff appearance or not.
“The goal was to always make the playoffs and you have to set goals, and it’s not impossible still. We play Stirling next week so we’ll take it one week at a time. If we can take care of Stirling at home the ball is in our court then and we’ll have two more games to try and win,” Harper said.
“The team has showed a lot of fight this year and we haven’t had the blowouts like last year, so you can see their maturity and growth.
“They are a good group and have gelled really well and even Kate said it’s one of the best groups she’s been part of in terms of how well they get along and the fun they have together. The girls have pulled together and are playing for each other which is the main thing.”
The only issue any time an SBL club develops their young players is that other options for them open up when they standout.
That was the case with Dugan and looks like being the case with Denehey and perhaps Burrows down the track, but Harper is confident in the Slammers being able to continue to produce exciting young talent.
“Unfortunately college is a lure and other things can take them away from us, but that’s the challenge for us to deal with as a club. We want to get kids to college so they can develop into the best players they can be,” he said.
“We then hope that down the track they will come back to us as better and more experienced players, that’s the trade off we hope to see happen.
“I’ve been over to watch the under-16s nationals and there’s three or four girls in that team from the South West who have huge potential and will be our next group coming through.”
The past two weeks have seen the Slammers remain in the playoff race by beating the Women’s SBL champions of the past two years, firstly against the Rockingham Flames and then the Willetton Tigers last Friday night.
What Harper was especially happy about against the Tigers was that it was without Hodges having a big impact and his young players stepped up led by 30 points from Bayliss.
“It’s clearly the best win of the season for us and the good thing was that we came from 13 points down at one stage in the first quarter to run over them,” Harper said.
“It was similar against Rockingham when we were seven points down with two minutes to go and had an 11-0 run to finish the game finishing over top of them. With a young group, that shows a lot of maturity.
“Friday night especially Brittany had a limited impact with fouls so it was our young girls who led the way with Courtney leading from the front, which she has done all year. Georgia was fantastic shooting 7-of-8 and her penetration was great. Tayah Burrows was great too and the girls played well above their years.”
The Slammers have had plenty of hiccups along the way this season that currently sees them in ninth position with a 6-13 record with games against the Stirling Senators, Perry Lakes Hawks and Joondalup City Wolves to go.
Losing Dugan to a knee injury after just five games was a blow and then being without Raya Thompson on Sunday against Lakeside hurt as well ending up in a big loss.
But the big positive has been the development of Denehey and Burrows in her absence.
“Tori has done her ACL and had her operation last week. The college she’s at has still honoured her scholarship so she’s going back to the same school where it looks like Georgia will be heading. She will go and do the rehab there and hopefully she might come back and be able to play with us at some point next year,” he said.
“What you hope for is that when someone is out that others step up. We lost Tori early in the season and Tayah has stepped up as our point guard and done a really good job for us. The challenge for them is to just keep getting better, and our challenge is to keep them fit and healthy, and to keep developing.”
Denehey has been one of the most exciting breakout stars in the Women’s SBL this season. Over the past five games alone, she has averaged 17.2 points and 4.0 assists and Harper has enjoyed seeing her make the leap from underage level.
“It’s not just offence either, the job she does defensively week in and week out on the point guards is fantastic. She terrorises them at times and her game is more than just offence, she has the complete game,” Harper said.
“I’ve coached her through under-18s and at nationals so I always knew she had the ability. She just needs to hone the skills and she has the ability to shoot which she is showing now.
“She can finish at the basket and shoot the three-pointer. She does have all the tools and she just needs to keep working on perfecting her craft.”
It’s remarkable that at 15 years of age, Burrows is delivering some tremendous performances now for the Slammers including over the past month averaging 12.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists.
“It’s the same with Tayah, she dominates at under-18s and now she’s grabbing her chances at this level. She played 33 minutes on Friday night and again on Sunday another 32 minutes,” he said.
“As a 15-year-old kid she is playing well above her years. She is getting to the rim, she is defending OK and she makes good decisions as a point guard and gets us into our offences well. It’s amazing she can do this at the age she is.”
Harper might have plenty of experience to call upon, but not as a head coach at SBL level. So he wasn’t sure what to expect coming into 2017 but he has enjoyed the experience and is already looking forward to building on it further in 2018.
“Obviously you are a bit apprehensive coming into the role but I think I’ve grown in the role and the girls have certainly helped me and set me straight,” Harper said.
“We had a meeting a few weeks ago where they wrote a few things on the blackboard and said a few things to me that were suggestions to take on board, and for the girls to take on board.
“Courtney and Kate have helped a lot with me, and Nathan and Kelly have been really good assistants. It’s helped me grow and I think I understand the game a bit better now, and hopefully next year it will be better again.”
Photo by Belinda Pike (Croc Photography)