THE start to her second season as coach at the Perry Lakes Hawks couldn’t have been more contrasting to her first, but Deanna Smith is confident the experience gained for young and senior players alike would make them a dangerous lower playoff side now if they can make it.
Smith took over as coach at the Lady Hawks last season from the strong work done under the tutelage of CJ Jackson and then following a heartbreaking semi-final loss in three games in 2016 to the Joondalup Wolves that saw her retire after a remarkable national and state league career.
The result was Perry Lakes going 20-2 through the regular season to claim the minor premiership and then go through the playoffs against the Cockburn Cougars, Willetton Tigers and Mandurah Magic without dropping a game to win the club’s first championship since 2008.
But coming off that championship, the first half of the 2018 season certainly didn’t quite go to plan for Smith and Perry Lakes. The Hawks did beat the winless East Perth Eagles in Round 2 but then lost the next eight matches leading into last weekend.
Perry Lakes put together two impressive performances to beat the Joondalup Wolves and Perth Redbacks inside 24 hours last weekend and suddenly at 3-9 with 10 games of the season remaining and with the eighth placed South West Slammers only at 4-7, playoffs is well within reach.
The Hawks again face the winless Eagles this Friday night and if they can have four wins on the board and be on a three-game winning streak with nine games remaining, there does appear every chance the defending champions could still be a playoff team.
Considering Nat Burton has only played three of 12 games so far, Gabby O’Sullivan seven and Toni Farnworth nine, the prospect of having a full team available the rest of the way is giving Smith plenty of reasons for optimism over what could still eventuate in 2018.
Certainly if the Hawks finish the season strongly with Burton and Farnworth in form supported by O’Sullivan, Lauren Jeffers and Kate Anthony with Emma Clarke, Emily Burton and Annika Renkema among those to have improved, Smith would like her chances against any of the top teams.
“It is one of those situations with the top eight in the SBL where there are teams that do scrape in with less than winning records after not having their full teams the whole season and finish sixth, seventh or eighths,” Smith said.
“Some of the top teams dread playing some of those teams who might have been fully together in the back half of the year and I know I would if I was in that situation.
“I definitely think that come finals time we are fighting our butts off to get there, and once you get there anything is possible. Bunbury proved that a few years ago and we’re not done and out yet.”
While the first half of the season was always likely to have its challenges with Nat Burton to always miss the opening nine games, O’Sullivan’s start to be delayed because of playing in the AFLW with Fremantle and Farnworth taking time off to play with New Zealand at the Commonwealth Games, Smith didn’t quite expect to end up 1-9 after 10 rounds.
But having picked up positives from those first 10 rounds despite just having the one win and now taking confidence out of last weekend’s wins over the Wolves and Redbacks, Smith is looking forward to what the rest of 2018 holds.
“It was never about who we didn’t have, we focused on who we did have and the next nine weeks isn’t necessarily about the personnel that we have, but the culture that we want to build and continue to grow upon,” she said.
“It’s an exciting time and we’ve got some really talented young players coming through and our senior players are working really well together. I’m excited to see what we can actually deliver now and now it’s time to deliver. We’ve taken a really big step towards being able to deliver that now.”
While Smith had coached previously at the Cockburn Cougars, that was while she was still playing so this past 18 months at the helm of the Hawks having retired as a player has been a steep learning curve.
Everything obviously went as well as she could have hoped in 2017 and in terms of wins and losses not much worse to start 2018, but it was about much more than that for Smith and she found it could end up being the making of her in terms of working out what she stands for as a coach.
“I’m a relatively new coach to the league and I was very fortunate to have a 20-2 season and win the Grand Final in my first year as a non-playing coach. In this kind of situation, it is about what kind of coach am I going to be like in these kind of challenging situations,” Smith said.
“For me it was a really good learning experience and time of self-reflection on who I want to be as a coach regardless of the winning and losing. I think I’ve found a very good balance with that and hopefully I’ll continue to grow and get better as a coach as the team will by playing together and doing what they do.”
The fact that Perry Lakes started the season 1-9 is a fact, but there were one-point losses to Cockburn and Lakeside thrown in there while they were a chance of winning other games as well, especially against Stirling.
So 1-9 could have quite conceivably been 4-6 for Perry Lakes and that would have had things looking decidedly different, but what Smith takes out of the season is learning which developing players deserve to be persevered and seeing how her experienced players took on the extra responsibility.
“Obviously it’s hard to go against stats but there were a couple of games there where if we got those wins we’d be in a lot better position and that would make you feel a hell of a lot more comfortable,” she said.
“But at the same time, as I said to the girls everything is a learning experience and this was about us handling adversity and finding out how we deal with that and pull together as a group. I know it’s pretty cliché, but that kind of resilience you build makes you tougher for these kind of situations.
“The girls have done really well in this situation when it isn’t easy when you are losing to try and pull it all together. But after pulling it together this weekend, hopefully now you will continue to see us grow and get better and better with the confidence that sometimes those wins actually give you.”
The great positive out of the first half of the season for Smith and the Hawks was seeing the development of the likes of Emma Clarke, Emily Burton, Annika Renkema, Kristan Teasdale, Danika Pisconeri, Bella Green and Sam Ashby.
But Smith also enjoyed seeing Jeffers and Anthony develop even more as leaders at the same time.
“As a coach and especially in the SBL it’s really important that you don’t just have a one season approach, it has to be about the big picture,” Smith said.
“I’m always looking at the juniors coming through and our pathway development, but knowing it’s important we need quality senior players showing the way as well.
“The experience those younger players will hold them in good stead going forward, but also it’s been really good for our senior players to have to step up their leadership skills and take them under their wings to bring the group together.
“It’s a different group to last year and you can just try to compare last season to this one, but it’s just a different team.
“Now that we’ve had to establish different kind of values and a different brand of basketball, the young girls will be better off for it and so will the senior girls. It was really evident this weekend with the way we pulled together as a group.”