DESPITE a career-threatening knee injury to veteran big man Taylor Mullenax, Mandurah Magic coach Aaron Trahair can’t help but be excited by the future and he hopes the majority of his young group of 2017 can stick together to build something special.
The Magic might be locked into finishing on the bottom in the Men’s SBL for 2017 but they are far from the usual wooden spooners with plenty of positivity and optimism surrounding what Trahair has been able to begin building in his first season as coach.
Mandurah’s four wins have been impressive against the Stirling Senators, Kalamunda Eastern Suns, Perry Lakes Hawks and Geraldton Buccaneers.
But there are another eight games where they had genuine chances to win including last Sunday at home to the Goldfields Giants even though they were without Mullenax and the college-bound Fletcher Klasztorny, who just happen to be brothers-in-law.
Mullenax has once again been outstanding leading the Magic this season as a powerful presence inside while import point guard Will McNeill is finishing in as impressive form as any player in the SBL.
But on top of those two leading the way, Klasztorny, Chad Simpson, Ruot Pal, Damon Ballantyne, Akau Deng, Sam Julitz, Ryan Curtis, Caiel Van Sambeeck and Chad Miegel have all shown good enough signs to suggest they can be part of a bright future with the Magic.
Trahair is certainly committed to that future as a coach and what he’s seen in 2017 has excited him enough to want to see this rebuilding plan through and building something special at Mandurah.
“We’ve got a really good core group of young kids there who ideally you’d like to be able to keep together for a few years just to see where they can go,” Trahair said.
“I know a few of them are thinking about going over to college and good luck to them, but from a selfish point of view you’d like them to stick together and see what they can build here.
“I think there’s a lot to be excited about going forward and anything is possible if the majority of that group remains together. They all want to work hard and improve, and hopefully there will be plenty more wins down the track so they get the reward for the effort they are putting in. I’m optimistic and confident that can happen.”
Mullenax honestly didn’t know what he still had to offer coming into the 2017 season and Trahair didn’t know what he could expect from him either as he arrived as coach, but what the big man ended up delivering with 19.2 points and 5.7 rebounds has been crucial for a young group.
That was until on half-time last Friday night at Belmont Oasis when he went down with a serious knee injury against the Perth Redbacks.
Whether it’s career-ending or not, Trahair will always be thankful and impressed with what Mullenax provided for him in 2017.
“He started off the season really well and as I joked around with him quite a few times, I felt like I was killing the poor bastard with the workload I gave him,” he said.
“He probably had a flat period for about a month there to the point where we had the conversation about packing it in for the season to rest up and he twisted his ankle slightly too. He was just sore and I can relate, he was a bit overweight and a bit old and you don’t bounce back how you used to.
“But to his credit over the last month he has been fantastic. He was massive in the win we had against Perry Lakes and incredibly good in the win in Geraldton, and even against East Perth last week he was good. To see him go down is unfortunate and fingers crossed it’s not the dreaded ACL even though it looks like something pretty major.”
The Magic started the season with just the one import and now are finishing with one also with Ricky Kreklow having come and gone, and now McNeill having arrived after missing the first two weeks.
Now that McNeill has warmed up and got used to the SBL, he is finishing the season in brilliant form as a point guard capable of doing it all from distributing the ball, shooting and getting to the rim himself, and perhaps more impressive is his natural competitiveness and rebounding ability.
Trahair couldn’t be more impressed with him and will be attempting to bring him back in 2018.
“We’ll definitely have the conversation with him about coming back. He’s a good guy and he missed the first couple of weeks, and then had a bit of a slow start in the first month as you would expect,” Trahair said.
“But to his credit, he loves the gym and is in there working every day and he is getting better every day. He is a good influence on our younger guys showing them what it takes if you work hard and put in the time on your shooting, overall game and body.
“He is reaping the rewards for his effort and without him, we would certainly be struggling a heck of a lot more than we are. I’m really happy for him because he’s a good guy and has been playing really well. Now that he has his legs under him he is bloody quick and he has been outstanding, I couldn’t speak more highly of him.”
Four wins is well short of what Trahair was hoping for when he took over as Mandurah coach this year after leading the Buccs to the semi finals in 2016, but he can’t question the effort and competitiveness of his group, and that’s all he can ask.
“Irrespective of our win-loss record, one thing I’m really constant on is that no matter what point of the game is or what the score is or what our record is, is that we continue competing and keep getting after it for every second of the game,” he said.
“To the boys’ credit they have been doing that and at times we get a bit lost and do some unusual things, but they are getting better.
“If they can see themselves where they were at the start of the season to where they are now individually and collectively, some of the guys you wouldn’t even recognise. With one game to go now, we’ll be going out there working our tails off like for any other game.”
There have been other highlights along the way, but for Trahair it’s hard to go past the win in Geraldton against the team he coached last season and who are championship contenders in 2017 only three weeks ago.
“It’s a hard place to win at the best of times so to go up there with the guys we had and come away with that considering where they sit and where we do, it was unreal. It really was unbelievable and to be honest I went up thinking if we could keep it under 20 points I would be the happiest person in the world,” Trahair said.
“But the guys just embraced the challenge and competed, and played really good basketball. They didn’t take a backwards step and we were grossly undertalented compared to them, but they just worked hard and played really well.
“As the game went on you could see their confidence keep building and they made their own luck, frustrated the Buccs late in the game and really deserved the win. They had their full team so had no excuses so it was a bit of a proud dad moment for myself.
“I was just really happy for the boys because we have probably coughed up some games we should have won, so to come away with an unexpected win like that is a nice reward for effort and from my point of view some satisfaction of the growth we’ve made. I’m really optimistic going forward of what this team can become in the next couple of years.”