THIS time last year Deanna Smith was doing everything in her power on the floor to lift the Perry Lakes Hawks to their first Women’s SBL grand final since 2010 but 12 months on and she’s taking great delight as coach to be getting the best out of her talented playing group.
Smith remained one of the standout players in the SBL right up until the very last appearance of her career as a player in Game 3 of last year’s semi-final series with the Joondalup City Wolves where she and the Lady Hawks fell agonisingly short of a grand final appearance.
She decided to end her outstanding playing career that included two WNBL championships, three times being named to the WNBL All-Star Five and spending several years throughout Europe on top of a WSBL championship with Perry Lakes in 2008 where she was also league and grand final MVP.
But at 35, her body had told her that it was time she stopped with the grind of playing and having already had a stint as player-coach at the Cockburn Cougars, she was the ideal candidate to step into the void left when CJ Jackson stepped down as coach at Perry Lakes.
While Smith left a hole on the court for the Hawks, the return of Australian representative and Perth Lynx WNBL star Nat Burton certainly helped offset that and the most important part for the new coach was to then keep the majority of the rest of the group together.
Kate Anthony and Lauren Jeffers are now experienced guards in the SBL, Gabby O’Sullivan has come on board from the Perth Redbacks as a spark plug off the bench while Sarah Donovan and Emily Burton have been strong presences inside helping Burton.
Toni Farnworth just seems to keep on getting better and more lethal every season as well as illustrated by her game-winning efforts in Game 1 of the quarter finals against Cockburn having just come back from national duties with New Zealand.
College-bound Mia Satie has shown that there is plenty of room for youth to develop with the Lady Hawks as well with Janique Kautsky, Danika Pisconeri, Annika Renkema and Kristan Teasdale also filling handy roles.
All that combined to see the Hawks finish the season on top of the standings with a 20-2 record and then beat the Cougars in the quarter finals 83-68 in Game 1 at Bendat Basketball Centre and 85-61 last Friday night in Game 2 at Wally Hagan Stadium.
That books Perry Lakes into a semi-final battle with the defending champion Willetton Tigers starting this Friday night at Bendat Basketball Centre.
The Hawks have looked as though they have been having a lot of fun playing together all season and that’s something that Smith has tried to ensure happens while making sure when it’s time to get serious, they can flick that switch as well.
“A lot of these girls have been together for a long time and obviously Toni came in last year, Nat is from the Hawks and has been around the Hawks a long time, and whenever as a coach you bring players in you do it mindful of the personalities and culture that you have,” Smith said.
“These girls just love playing basketball with each other. It’s about the fun, the camaraderie and the basketball stuff kind of comes second. We just have to ensure they work hard and have fun.
“That’s been our attitude all season and adding in the quality of Nat and Toni who are pretty relaxed people but intense on the court has been a fantastic mix for us.”
Smith isn’t looking for the personal glory as a coach, she just wants to see the teammates she worked so closely with in her last two years as a player continue to improve and develop, and to try help Perry Lakes to a seventh Women’s SBL championship and first since Smith was there in 2008.
Her first aim has been as coach to help all her players get better and then the end result of that was always to hopefully record a lot of wins.
“I am just proud of what they are achieving from where we started to where we are now and what we’re building towards,” she said.
“Lauren Jeffers is playing possibly career-best basketball at a more experienced age and then we have Gabby coming in, Sarah Donovan is probably having her best season and to me it’s just a delight to be able to help bring out the best in the players.
“That’s been my aim and if team success comes at the end of that, then that’s a bonus because as a coach I’m focusing on developing and improving each of my players. And in turn by doing that you hope it leads to wins and I’m proud of the way they all work to play with and for each other.”
As for the quarter-final series against the Cougars, the eighth-seeds came into the contest looking to unsettle the Lady Hawks and to play with a physical approach to try and take the minor premiers out of their game.
For two and-a-half quarters that worked in Game 1 before Farnworth took over to lead the Hawks to the home win. Then last Friday again the Cougars made it a good contest for a half but couldn’t keep it going.
Smith was happy with the way her team responded to the challenge presented by the Cougars and especially to be able to let them enjoy themselves late in the piece last Friday night.
“You take something from every game that you play so we are focused on getting better all the time, we never feel like we can’t improve. I’ve really pushed that with the girls that even though we went 20-2 this season, we have kept growing,” Smith said.
“We take what we get in a series like this, you handle it and teams are going to throw stuff at you. This is the best time because teams throw new stuff at you and this is when you get really tested with what you have in place.
“It was just great for me to get every player on the floor and the girls did the hard work to reward their peers and the other girls. It was Mia’s last game as well this week as she heads off to college and she got back out there and hit the last three, and the girls got around her.
“That’s what our club is all about. We get behind people, we are together and we do it for each other which is what makes this team so special.”
Unfortunately for Perry Lakes in its quest for the 2017 championship, Satie’s season is now finished as she leaves to begin her time at college at Pepperdine University in California.
But the overall goal of any SBL club is to ultimately develop players to get them to the next level and Smith has no doubt that Satie has a bright future ahead and that her rise into an important player already with the Hawks in 2017 will only have helped her improve quicker.
“She has earnt her spot in the team as well and all her minutes. She has been a really valuable asset for us this season and losing her will leave a massive hole, but we’ve welcomed back Janique and hopefully adding her back in will help us continue to push forward,” she said.
“We wish Mia all the best and she’s a committed, dedicated, hard-working kid and I’m sure she will be successful in whatever environment she’s in. She is capable of achieving whatever she wants to.
“WNBL is definitely in her sights and she was a train on player with the Lynx so she would love to improve at college and come back there. And she could be a real quality WA talent at that level.
“Defensively she has improved across the season and she’s not a kid who thinks she is great, she wants to keep getting better and thrives on that feedback. It’s a pleasure to coach a kid like that.”
Photo by Belinda Pike (Croc Photography)