WHEN Craig Mansfield took over as Lakeside Lightning coach coming into the 2016 Women’s SBL a goal to make the playoffs in his first year and win a series in his second seemed reasonable, but now they are in the semi finals there’s no reason they can’t aim higher in 2017.
Mansfield took over at Lakeside with the Lightning having played in the 2014 grand final but then having a season to forget with just the one win in 2015 leaving him with a big job to get them back around the mark again.
He kept much of the core with the likes of Ash Grant, Tia Ucich, Jess Van Schie, Courtney Byrnes and Tiahrn Flynn while bringing in Ali Schwagmeyer who had previously played under him at Kalamunda Eastern Suns.
The Lightning returned to the playoffs in 2016 losing to the eventual champion Willetton Tigers in the quarter finals and now they have taken another significant step forward in 2017.
Keeping that main group together while bringing in a second import Sydnee Fipps to replace Devanny King and then Sam Roscoe coming back from college to provide an inside presence has helped see the Lightning emerge as a genuine championship contender.
They won their last six games of the regular season to enter the playoffs in third position and then went on to beat last year’s grand finalists the Joondalup City Wolves in two games in the quarter finals.
That now sees the Lightning enter the semi finals against the Mandurah Magic with Game 1 this Saturday night at Mandurah Aquatic and Recreation Centre with the winner of the series to advance to the grand final.
Mansfield tries not to set any firm goals before any season but he feels like the Lightning are advancing in the way he would have hoped.
“Some coaches really start the season with the goal to make the playoffs or the grand final, but we never set goals like that. We just set about improving from week to week and by winning the first round for us now is as big an achievement as just making the playoffs was last year,” Mansfield said.
“I thought they were better than the 1-21 they had the year before too when they lost some close games and then when we added Ali when I came, that helps immensely. Lakeside has been really supportive and this year allowed me to recruit Syd as well and given we don’t have a whole bunch of paid players, the girls have worked really hard.
“Even though we didn’t come out and set goals, if you had asked me to at the start of the season, we are probably right on par where I would have hoped we would be, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a good achievement. I think the way the program has been tracking the past couple of years is really good.”
As for the team he has assembled this year with Lakeside, Mansfield is proud of the fact that he hasn’t had to create a championship contender by totally overawing his roster.
The two main changes in 2017 for the Lightning were Roscoe playing as that inside player replacing Devanny King and Fipps coming in as that wing player replacing Byrnes.
“We didn’t modify our team balance at all. We lost Dev and we added Sam, and we lost Courtney Byrnes and added Syd. The players obviously have different strengths and weaknesses, and Sam with her size and rim protection makes a big difference but the balance of the side hasn’t changed,” he said.
“A lot of the improvement has come from within the girls individually but we always had a steeper upward curve just because last year was my first season and I was getting to know everyone and didn’t get everything right. I still haven’t got everything right this year but we are starting to understand each other better and the girls are playing well.”
The Lightning might be looking at the peak of their powers right now on an eight-game winning streak heading into the semi-final battle with the Magic, Mansfield knows there have been challenges along the way including recently and they need to keep working hard.
“You always have different challenges and even though we’ve got through what we needed at training the last couple of weeks, it hasn’t been really sharp. I’ve had to push a little bit to get there but I hope we are a bit sharper this week but confidence and belief you get out of winning is great,” Mansfield said.
“Even at half-time last week I asked them if they thought they were any good. They all put their hands up and I said we were seven points up, on the road against last year’s grand finalists even though we hadn’t played perfect. I did that to show them to not get frustrated or get away from what they’re doing just because things haven’t gone exactly to plan.
“For us it’s about continuing to learn patience and discipline with what we do, but the best thing about that win was that we didn’t shoot our way to a win.
“They went in front late in the third but we defended our way back on top and to the win because we didn’t shoot well. We still got the job done and that’s promising because in every series you usually have one game where you have to be good enough to win when you don’t play well.”
Photo by Vikki Hile