AFTER two years of semi-final heartbreak, the Geraldton Buccaneers have loaded up for another crack at that elusive SBL championship in 2018 but coach Ray Evans knew there was never any guarantees of getting another opportunity.
Evans was part of the Buccs first and only championship in the SBL in 2000 when he was a player and he desperately hopes to help bring another title to Geraldton more so for the community, the club’s loyal servant and all-time great players Aaron Ralph and Mat Wundenberg as anything.
The Buccs did reach a Grand Final in 2014 losing to the East Perth Eagles and then with Aaron Trahair as coach, reached the semi finals in 2016 before falling in the semi finals to the eventual champion Cockburn Cougars.
Evans returned as coach in 2017 when Trahair decided travelling to and from Geraldton wasn’t going to be a winning formula for him long-term.
The result was another strong season for the Buccaneers reaching the semi finals again before falling once more in three games against the Joondalup Wolves.
There was then a mass turnover in the playing stocks at the Buccs leading into 2018 with Dwayne Benjamin and Matt Hancock moving on while Jackson Hussey and Mo Barrow also departed to join the defending champion Perth Redbacks.
That left Evans and the Buccs with plenty of work to do to pull together a squad that could help them at least get back to being a semi-final level team again, and hopefully allow them to go a step or two further.
First step was new imports and Geraldton went young in the form of point guard Gokul Natesan and shooting swingman Colter Lasher.
They were far from done though. Tongan-born guard Marcus Alipate then added further depth to the back court to team with Natesan to help replace the departed Hussey and Hancock.
The Buccs were also able to secure the services of the returning Liam Hunt, the son of former championship winning great Dan, after his time at college and then they pulled off the real coup with former Perth Wildcats guard Earnest Ross.
Ross spent the 2014/15 season in the NBL with the Wildcats able to play as a local given he was born in Guam and it’s that same rule that allows him to play as an unrestricted player in the SBL making it quite the prized signing given in all reality he is good enough to play as an import.
It was always going to take some time for the Buccs to fully click this season given Ross ended up missing the opening eight games of the season before arriving, Hunt missed the first three and Alipate didn’t arrive long before things got underway.
The positive was new imports Natesan and Lasher were here in time to gel and fit in with the group and then there were returning veterans Ralph, Wundenberg, James Paringatai and Ike Smith that kept things under control.
Given they have only just got to full strength over the last couple of weeks, it’s been an impressive start from Geraldton after losing the season-opener to the Redbacks at Belmont Oasis.
They went on to win six straight games after that before a shock loss at home to the lowly Mandurah Magic.
But the response since has been strong with wins against the Stirling Senators, Rockingham Flames and Cockburn Cougars leading into three straight games at home against the Cockburn Cougars, Perry Lakes Hawks and South West Slammers.
That has the Buccs sitting in a strong position with a 9-2 record and Evans has no doubt they can only continue to get better from here as Ross finds his place more and more in the league and with Geraldton.
“I just couldn’t wait to get the whole squad together to get them training and working together to see what kind of team we were going to be because it remained a bit of an unknown there for a while,” Evans said.
“Until we got to play together and see how strengths and weaknesses first hand, we just had no way of knowing. We know we’d keep getting better as the season went on.”
Because of the experience still in the group from Ralph and Wundenberg, and arriving with Ross, Evans was willing to go with a bit more youth in his imports with Natesan turning 24 this Sunday and Lasher starting the season aged 24.
While having experience around them helped, it was what he liked about Natesan and Lasher that attracted him to them the most.
“We went with those imports because we think they are great guys and great players, but it obviously did help to have the faith that we could go with some less experienced guys knowing we had Earnest to come and guys like Ralphy and Maty Wundenberg still here,” Evans said.
“We chose them because they were good guys and players for the most part though. It’s always hard for imports when they first come to the league to figure out how the league works and how it’s officiated, and what they are going to get. They come out of structured systems in college and then come out here and have to be more natural scorers.
“So it can take a while for them to adjust and they’ll only keep getting better with the more games they play. Gokul is great with the ball in his hands and he creates so much, and it was just always going to take some time for our guys to understand each other and get on the same page.”
Evans is in his second stint as coach of the Buccs and always said when he took over from Trahair last year that he was going to do it for at least two years.
That motivation was only sparked further following the semi-final loss to the Wolves, and with Ralph and Wundenberg committed to go again, he couldn’t help but be just as motivated as ever as well.
“I always said I was going to do it for two years when I took over last year. I was fired up to come back and give it another crack like the other guys, Ralphy and Mut especially,” he said.
“They are great players and the leaders of this team. We needed their experience in the group to make us better and to hold down the fort while our other players arrived. Hopefully we are able to get that championship before they retire, they certainly deserve it. That’s the aim.”
Reflecting on last season, Evans doesn’t mind admitting it took some time to get over the pain of being one win away from a Grand Final appearance and just coming up short.
But once that pain subsides, all the focus goes into giving yourselves another chance to at least have another chance to be in that position again.
“It took the guys a while and me personally I didn’t want to have anything to do with basketball for a while,” Evans said.
“You want to step away completely and just reflect on the season, but as soon as we get back into pre-season mode everybody was fired up.
“But the thing about it is you can always say that you were close last year and want to use that as a stepping stone this year, the reality is we have a completely different team. So we have to start again and build another team that we hope can be up there as a contender at the end of the season.”