HE might have initially been the man charged with finding the new South West Slammers coach, but now Carl Catalano is confident he’s the one to take the club forward as they try to win their first Men’s SBL championship since 1999.
The Slammers were a powerhouse in the Men’s SBL through the second half of the 1990s winning championships in 1995, 1996, 1998 and 1999. But it has been lean pickings since with just the one Grand Final appearance which came in 2015 where they lost to the Joondalup Wolves.
After some exceedingly challenging times, the Slammers did look to be on track under Ty Harrelson by 2015 but they were back to square one upon his departure and had a season each under Michael Van Lit and Charles Nix the previous two years.
They were genuine contenders again last year only losing to the eventual champion Perth Redbacks in three games in the quarter finals, but again once Nix departed as coach joined by Tre Nichols and Teny Puot, there was a lot of work to do for the Slammers entering 2018.
Catalano was tasked with the job of finding the Slammers their new coach and after Van Lit and Nix couldn’t commit beyond one year the previous two seasons, the first mission was for someone that could be in the job long-term to build something over time that was sustainable.
That proved more challenging than was thought so by the end of January it became clear that someone of high enough calibre wasn’t going to be able to be lured to the role and Catalano was prepared to be that man himself.
That didn’t quite give him the ideal preparation time before the season started that he would have liked and then in the end the signing of imports Justin Reynolds and Demetrius Robinson didn’t pan out.
They ended up playing just three and eight games respectively with the plan always for Robinson to make way for the returning Brian Voelkel. But Reynolds just didn’t pan out in terms of a big man to support Clive Weeden with that causing further pain with Chris Douglas having just played three games too so far in 2018.
The Slammers lost their opening seven games of the season so it was far from the start Catalano was hoping for before they broke through against the Cockburn Cougars at Eaton Recreation Centre.
They went on to win three of four games before a disappointing 53-point loss to the Stirling Senators on Sunday heading to a trip to Kalgoorlie this Saturday night to play the bottom placed Goldfields Giants.
While being 3-9 means it hasn’t been the start Catalano was hoping for to his time at the helm at the Slammers, he has a much longer-term picture in mind and is confident he can be the right person to take the club forward.
“It was a whirlwind but the more we searched for a coach and were looking at it, I was resigned to the fact that finding the right person to develop this group and take it to the next level wasn’t going to be easy, especially in Bunbury,” Catalano said.
“The last two guys we’ve had, Michael Van Lit and Charles Nix, did a great job but could only do it for one year because it’s a lot of travel. You can’t underestimate driving down twice a week plus the games so it was really important to find someone locally.
“Unfortunately it’s not like Perth where you have 15 clubs and a lot of candidates, so I put my hand up. Coaching is what I love and I’ve been doing it my whole life. I’ve been lucky enough over the last five or six years to take state teams away and national teams, and coach at all levels of basketball.
“I’ve coached a lot of these guys too and I know what they’re like. I’m really enjoying coaching the older guys as well and I’m up for the challenge.
“We are committed to winning championships and as I said when I took over, the goal is still the same and I’m going to put my imprint on how we do things but the goal is still the same.”
Looking back on last year, the Slammers team looked capable of doing something special with the backcourt of Nichols, Puot and Michael Lay, Voelkel doing a lot of everything and then Douglas and Weeden doing a power of work holding down the frontcourt.
They ended up winning Game 1 of the quarter finals on the road against the Redbacks and even though it was a battle of fourth against fifth, that series always had the potential of providing the championship winner.
That ended up happening with the Redbacks winning both on the road and at home in the second weekend of the series to advance and go on to win the title.
Catalano watched on thinking the Slammers had a real chance too after taking that Game 1 and he took over a team for those returning players who knew they weren’t too far away.
“Those memories of the Redbacks series and losing Game 2 especially at home still stick in the minds of the guys who were part of that,” Catalano said.
“Everything we are doing as a group is about taking that next step and this started with Ty five years ago.
“I was part of that group and lucky enough to spend a year on his coaching staff and I’ve been coaching for 25 years, but what I learned from him in how to deal with players was really good about building the rapport and dealing with grown men.
“I’ve learned a lot over the last seven years and hopefully some of that player management, which is effectively what we do, pays off.
“I can’t be out on the court with these guys so you have to be able to manage them to what they need to do, and drive them and inspire them. If you can’t do that as coach, you’ve got no chance of succeeding.”
Catalano felt it was the depth coming off the bench that was key for the Redbacks in that quarter-final win against the Slammers. While that hasn’t necessarily been rectified to date in 2018, that is the long-term goal for him and the club moving forward.
“Once we took Game 1 against the Redbacks and came back to a home crowd of 1100 people, I felt like we were going to be tough. But you get some young guys coming off the bench and the starters cancel each other out, but their guys off the bench made the difference knocking down shots,” he said.
“That’s something that we did identify with the group we had that we needed to work on our depth. We wanted to have as many of the young guys coming into our group that we could because we have some of the best players in the state and even the country at their age.
“That was a real focus for us and getting them up to speed could make the difference for us in terms of firstly getting to the finals, and then how deep you go because you need to have depth.”
Catalano wants to ensure the emerging young players at the Slammers can be built around moving forward and that includes some promising stars including Travis Durnin, Matthew Leary, Tom Harper, Lucas Goff, Travis Vogel and Daniel Woods.
But he knows that any young group can only succeed with strong leaders and that’s why he feels so fortunate to have the continued services of naturalised veterans Weeden and Lay to support imports Voelkel and Brandon Thompson.
“Obviously it starts with our young guys and our program we’ve got throughout our juniors. I’ve coached a lot of these kids through under-18s and through under-16s at state level and taking them away to nationals,” Catalano said.
“So I know what they are like and they know what I’m like. Then it’s just a matter of having the senior players buy in and having guys like Mike Lay and Clive Weeden be on board on buy into what we’re doing is the key. They are just great leaders and great people.
“I can’t stress enough how great he (Lay) is as a leader in the locker room, at training and then on the floor in games. To be able to have a guy like that be non-restricted allows you to go and look at two other imports.
“Brian makes such a massive difference to us as though. He just doesn’t give up and yes he walks the line, but he is a great guy. All the guys on the team love him, but everyone else in the league hates him. We are confident when our team is up and going we can still make an impact this season.”
Depth in the frontcourt was something the Slammers did need to improve on coming into 2018 after Weeden was so often left to battle against the odds last year with support from Douglas.
Now Douglas hasn’t been a factor so far in 2018 and Reynolds didn’t pan out meaning Weeden once again has had carry the load. But Sam Sopolinski is a big man who Catalano believes can be a factor once he finds his feet at SBL level.
“He’s 28 and he’ll find his way in the league. He hasn’t played in 10 years and he only joined the group in the middle of February once he realised he could commit. He really made a focus that he wanted to commit and play SBL, and test himself,” Catalano said.
“At times we have struggled to work out where to get him the ball, but once he gets in the right position he can really get some things done.
“He has to work to his strengths and if he can come in and give us eight or 10 or 12 minutes a game where he defends the paint and is strong on the glass, he’ll help make us tough.”