AARON Ralph grew up in Geraldton dreaming of winning an SBL championship and during a 300-plus game career he has got close and feels as though this 2017 remains the best chance he’s had despite a current four-game losing slide.
The Buccs remain in a good position to finish in second spot at the end of the regular season with road games to go this weekend to the Stirling Senators and Cockburn Cougars before finishing at home to the Perry Lakes Hawks next Saturday night.
A four-game losing run at this point of the season might not look great, but the Buccs only lost narrowly in games that could have gone either way against the Willetton Tigers, Perth Redbacks and Joondalup City Wolves while the home loss to the bottom placed Mandurah Magic was a surprise.
However, Geraldton appears to have a squad with the tools capable of still going along way in 2017 with the experience and leadership of Ralph and Mat Wundenberg, the all-round talents of Dwayne Benjamin and Mo Barrow, and then a back court featuring Jackson Hussey and Matt Hancock who have spent time with NBL clubs.
Ralph has now played more than 300 games with the Buccs and having grown up in Geraldton, remembers hearing the 2000 championship win on the radio. Now having cemented his own legacy with his hometown team, he’s proud of what he’s accomplished to date.
“I’m born and raised in Geraldton and I just love the town, and all the boys,” Ralph said.
“It’s a great bunch of guys and some guys move out and we bring in some younger guys, but they’re all the same Buccs family that we have put together.
“The new guys always fit in pretty quickly and that’s one of the key things with our recruiting, we are always looking for guys who are team and family first people.”
Thinking back to 2000 when the Buccs broke through for a championship after several hard luck stories, Ralph had only just reached double-figures in terms age. But he does have a recollection of listening to that grand final on the radio.
Having supported the Buccs and having now experienced life as a player for the team and the importance they have to the Geraldton community, he has a sense of what a first championship in 17 years would mean to the whole city and not just the club and players.
“I vaguely remember that last championship that the Buccs won. I was 10 and I remember listening to it on the radio and the town and club is itching for another one. We want to bring another one back to Geraldton,” he said.
“Our supporter base is massive at home and we average 900 people a game. It wouldn’t just mean the world to ourselves and our families, but the supporters who have been along the whole journey with us. It would mean a lot to everyone in the town.”
“I’m proud of the community club that we are and you know how important it is to everyone involved. We are just all itching for the same goal and we are all on the same page so hopefully we are able to achieve it.”
The Buccs have been around the mark for several seasons including making the grand final in 2014, coming up against the red-hot Goldfields Giants in 2015 and then going down to the eventual champion Cockburn Cougars last year in the semi finals.
While the run has been significantly longer for both Ralph and Wundenberg, with the past three years at least having seen them having teams capable of contending, Ralph feels the time is right for them.
He has no question in his mind that the team of 2017, particularly with the addition of MVP candidate Benjamin, is better than even the team that reached the grand final three years ago. After the journey he and Wundenberg have been on together, it would mean everything to breakthrough.
“This is one of the best teams I’ve played with and even the year we made the grand final, I’d say this team is better than that. We have all the pieces and the guys doing all the right things, and we play for each other. It’s just a few things here and there that we need to get right before the playoffs now,” Ralph said.
“It has been a long journey to have played over 300 games now and it’s certainly had its ups and downs along the way, but between me and Mat we’ve been around a long time and we are both as hungry as ever to try and get this championship.
“We got close a couple of years ago and just fell short, but we’ve been building for the past 18 months to build this group and try to keep getting better. It would mean the world if that ended up with a championship especially to me and Mat who have been there for a long time. We just want to experience that desperately.”
Just because the championship is the dream for Ralph and he believes this team is capable of reaching it, that doesn’t mean he’s not fully aware of the job still ahead of them to even be able to think about a grand final appearance.
After heading home on the bus last weekend after losses to the Redbacks and Wolves, Ralph is hoping for more success this weekend against the Senators and Cougars to tune up for the playoffs and return to second spot.
“We sit back and debrief on the bus and have a few beers with the boys and work on areas that we need to get better. We just have to identify the areas we need to execute and then come back and do the same thing again. Hopefully by the end of this weekend we are talking about two wins,” he said.
“It’s just little things we need to get better at to make us better as a group and that could take us to that next level. Offensively we are as talented as hell and defensively we are really talented as well, we just have lapses like most teams do. We just need to limit those and then hopefully all our work pays off and we’re able to walk away with the championship at the end of the year.”
Ralph has enjoyed playing under both Mark Heron and Aaron Trahair in recent seasons, but the return to the head coaching chair of club legend Ray Evans who himself is a championship winner and 412-game veteran has been a big boost.
Ralph has enjoyed playing under him again while also having Heron helping as an assistant.
“Ray’s a good friend of mine and Mat’s and a club legend so when the job was there this year we were pushing him to come back and coach because his knowledge speaks for itself. He is a very smart coach and was a very smart player,” Ralph said.
“His IQ with basketball is very high but bringing Hezza back as well was big for us. He went away for one year but has been involved the last five years and Ducs (Aaron Ducas) has been there forever. So they are a good coaching staff and they are awesome to work with and play under.”
Ralph might no longer be starting for the Buccs, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t remain a valuable and strong contributor to the team.
He provides great leadership and experience, but also production and he’s more than capable of still lighting it up highlighted by a 29-point game against Mandurah this season while reaching 20 points on a couple of other occasions and still averaging 11.1 points and 4.3 rebounds a game.
He is happy to still be contributing despite now being in the veteran class.
“After 300 and something games I’m happy I’m still running around,” he said.
“My role has changed over the last four or five years going from a starter to the bench, but I love doing that and my role is to bring that spark and energy into the game and getting the boys up if we’re not playing too well.
“But it’s the same thing, I’m always going to come out and catch and shoot, and attack and work as hard as I can.”
Ralph might now be married and having recently become a father for the first time, but his passion for the Buccs remains as strong as ever. He has no doubt he’ll continue playing on at least in 2018 and even beyond his career he’d love to stay involved at the club.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll be playing on next year again. I’ll have a chat to my wife about it because we’ve just had a baby but I’m keen to play on and my body’s fine. Touchwood I haven’t had a serious injury for years so I’ll be happy to play on for another couple of years,” Ralph said.
“My wife does continue to make massive sacrifices for me to come away so much during the season. But without her support I wouldn’t be able to keep going and hopefully I can keep doing it for a couple more years.
“After that I would definitely like to stay involved in the club in some way. But we’ll jump at that hurdle when it comes.”
Photo by Belinda Pike (Croc Photography)