LOSING Game 3 of a semi-final series is a tough way to finish any season but for Lakeside Lightning coach Craig Mansfield, he took those hard lessons to improve this Women’s SBL season and the signs are looking good early in 2018.
It was a big job ahead of Mansfield when he took over as Lightning coach following their one-win season in 2015. But given they had reached a Grand Final only 12 months earlier there was at least something for him to build upon.
He did well to get the Lightning to the playoffs in 2016 where they lost in the quarter final to eventual champions the Willetton Tigers and then they took a significant step forward in 2017.
With Ali Schwagmeyer joined by Sydnee Fipps as a powerful import combination along with Ash Grant and Sam Roscoe as bigs and some impressive experienced and youthful role players around them, they were right there with the Perry Lakes Hawks and Mandurah Magic throughout the season.
They narrowly finished third before beating the Joondalup Wolves in the quarter finals and then took the Magic all the way to three games in the semi finals before losing a hotly contested series in that decider in Mandurah.
That was a heartbreaking way for the season to end for the Lightning, but once the dust settled Mansfield turned his attention to how to get that little bit better again in 2018.
He wanted to return a similar group and he has succeeded in that cause with only Tia Ucich and Alecia Knowles departing who played meaningful minutes while the key was ensuring that Schwagmeyer, Fipps, Grant and Roscoe would all be back.
They are then topped off with two women he knows well, sister Mel Moyle and fiancé Courtney Byrnes, so there’s every reason at least in terms of personnel that Lakeside will be stronger in 2018.
But it wasn’t just about personnel for Mansfield. He learned some things in that semi-final series with the Magic about areas of improvement they could still make and he’s confident they will have done that.
And based on the early evidence with wins against the Perth Redbacks, Perry Lakes Hawks and Stirling Senators, despite not yet being at full strength, that they are looking good.
“I generally know how close I feel we were or how good I felt the team was by how long it takes to review the film, and it took me a long time to get to that after last season. We were 5-4 without Sam and Ash and finished 17-5, and were half a game behind Mandurah,” Mansfield said.
“So they had home court and we lost Game 3 to them in Mandurah. I think if we had one of those big girls earlier we might have been able to finish second, maybe, to get home court advantage and then you never know how that series swings.
“But at the end of the day, neither of us were good enough last year because whoever won on our side couldn’t beat Hawks in the Grand Final. That’s not a knock on Mandurah, I’m sure Randy felt the same when reviewing the Grand Final and how tough that would have been.
“But we were right there last year, so whether it was home court advantage, some calls, shots that didn’t fall or whatever, who knows what could have been different. But we learned ways we need to improve and Mandurah were the big drivers for that.
“They exposed some things in us and them and Hawks were the two teams better than us last year so we used their standard to improve ourselves this year. Hopefully that pans out.”
There was no need for Mansfield and the Lightning to go out needing a recruiting spree heading into 2018 given the majority of the group was keen to return. But adding Moyle, Byrnes and Lizel Buckley are just the boost he was hoping to find to a deep squad with plenty of youth.
“I’m very happy to add them to our team as well as Lizel Buckley. It gives me a good headache as a coach in terms of working out our best rotation. I think we were a little bit too heavily dependent on certain people last year and with things about how we played,” he said.
“We won’t completely throw out our identity, but will reshape things a bit and improve our flow the best we can. All the girls are open to that. It obviously helps having good players and I can point to any number of them who can stand up.
“I have a few girls that when Lakeside won one game the year before I started they brought up before they were probably ready, but who are now very close to being quality SBL players.
“It’s hard to find minutes for everyone and I have players who have been All-Stars or 250-game players or captains of championship teams who aren’t worried if they are starting or coming off the bench. They are happy with whatever role they can play for the team and it’s really a blessing for me.”
The first goal for 2018 at Lakeside was to ensure the return of Schwagmeyer and Fipps.
Last season they combined to average 43.6 points, 15.1 rebounds and 7.0 assists across the season and were instrumental in the Lightning getting so close to a Grand Final appearance.
They have again started 2018 strongly and Mansfield hopes for Schwagmeyer it leads to a full on WNBL opportunity for the 2018/19 season while for Fipps, he sees enough to suggest she’ll be even better this year.
“I’ve obviously done a number of seasons with Ali now and I was really happy to get her back. I’m really hoping now that she gets a national league opportunity particularly now that she can play as an Australian. There’s just no way she shouldn’t be playing in the WNBL. I can’t say enough good about her,” he said.
“Syd was a great unknown going into last year but she was great for us and I think she did a lot more work in this off-season than she did the year before. She is physically in a better spot as a result as well as knowing the system and the league.
“The other thing is that Syd and Ali are very different personalities but they get on well and I think they tend to balance each other out. I really like their dynamic and I love the dynamic we have amongst the whole team this year.”
Mansfield is also looking to his younger and emerging players to show they deserve more game time in 2018 as well. One of those is Paris Duffield who demanded court time over the off-season and has started the season off impressively as a result.
“The thing with Paris is that I’ve always really rated her and she came away with me in the state team, and she has a couple of skills that are A-grade level and has some stuff in her game that want Women’s SBL level,” Mansfield said.
“The problem is that the more intense the competition, the more those things get exposed because you can’t hide on the court. Paris sat down and had those difficult conversations, and other players were in the same boat, and went away to work on some stuff.
“I’m really happy with the adjustments she’s made in her game and that’s a credit to her. That all happens behind the scenes and I’m happy with how she’s progressing.”