IT was a bold approach by Rockingham Flames coach Ryan Petrik to go backwards in 2017 with the vision of rebuilding into a championship contender again by 2018 but right now you can’t fault his approach and history is on his side that he knows what he’s doing.
Petrik has been at the helm of the Flames in the Women’s SBL now since 2009 and has achieved tremendous success including championships in 2014 and 2015, and being Coach of the Year in 2012 having done something similar to what he’s attempting in 2018.
The Flames had strong seasons in 2009 and 2010 with a combined 31-13 record over those two years despite just missing a Grand Final berth, but by 2011 Petrik knew it was time for a rebuild and a year of pain to build for the future.
So they won just two games in 2011 but always with an eye to the future and that plan paid off as they won 15 games in 2012 and made the Grand Final, losing to the South West Slammers.
But the stage was set for sustained success for the Flames and after just missing a Grand Final spot again in 2013, they won championships in 2014 and 2015, and it was only the eventual champion Willetton Tigers that ended their three-peat quest in the semi finals of 2016.
That was a remarkable five-year run for Rockingham and Petrik has no doubt they had to go through the pain of 2011 in order to put the building blocks in place to make that happen.
No good run can last forever and it was time to take a step back in 2017 for the Flames. Petrik bit the bullet with the support of club management to strip things back, put minutes into the young players and accept the six-win season that eventuated win an eye to hitting back hard in 2018.
Going through that pain in 2017 didn’t guarantee anything in 2018 but the return of Jacinta Bourne from a knee injury would help and so would the arrival of impressive young centre Maddison Allen.
But still with imports Taneisha Harrison and D’Lesha Lloyd to not arrive until close to the halfway point of the season, Petrik still knew he had his work cut out to put them in a good position before they turned up.
That’s where the desire of Townsville Fire WNBL star Darcee Garbin to come back for a stint with her hometown Flames proved a godsend and now Rockingham is up and running entering Round 14 in the Women’s SBL in second position with a 10-3 record in second position.
Now with Harrison and Lloyd having settled and the rest of the group up and running, Petrik is confident the Flames will only keep getting better the rest of 2018 as well.
“The plan is for us to keep getting better from here and a team like Lakeside has great continuity so when things get tough they have the experience of having played together,” Petrik said.
“We don’t have any of that so as we go along, you wouldn’t think we could get worse if I have any idea what I’m doing. If we do, I might not have a job for much longer.
“The pieces were designed to fit together with D’Lesha playing against the opposition team’s second big, Taneisha can play anywhere one through four, Maddi is our centre and Jacinta Bourne is our playmaking Aussie.
“Dena (English) is our three-point shooter, (Chelsea) Armstrong is our defensive guard, (Ariana) Hetherington is our grunt. When you think all the pieces fit and you get them on the court together, you hope the puzzle comes together.”
Petrik didn’t necessarily expect the Flames to be as good as they proved to be through the first half of the 2018 season, but he always had faith that the work they put into their developing players in 2017 and then the additions of Lloyd, Harrison and Allen, and return of Bourne would pay dividends.
He wasn’t sure how quickly things would come together but even last year when they were on a horror run in the second half of the season, he had the big picture in mind of getting his players playing a style to match the league’s top teams.
Then when topped up with some high-quality talent like they have been in 2018, he had great confidence in the plans that what they were working towards would come to fruition.
“It’s probably come a little bit quicker than we thought but we went through it before in 2011. The biggest fear always is that the club will change its decision midway through,” he said.
“But I sat down with our president Warren (Boucaut) a year and-a-half ago and said we need a year of rebuilding and as long as you give us a two-year window to get this done, we’ll get it done.
“We went through it in 2011 so we have the experience of doing it and we might be a little bit ahead of schedule, but we still have catching up of Lakeside to do and there’s no way we’ll be favourites or anything like that come finals time.
“This whole year was about working on what would beat Lakeside or Mandurah or Perry Lakes in a final, and if it wouldn’t then we wouldn’t work on it. If that means we lose against everyone in 2017 then so be it, we needed to get ready for the big boys in 2018 and that’s working out well so far.”
Having had the struggles last year, Petrik knew there was the potential for a slow start to 2018 while awaiting the arrival of his two imports, but the fears of the club were put to bed when Garbin decided to have a stint back at the club she won two championships with.
“The club wanted us to have at least one of our imports here from day one and I kept telling Warren that the chance of getting a 10 import for March is slim,” Petrik said.
“But he emphasised we needed to have someone for the sponsors and the girls to lift them, and Darcee said she would come home and help out. That kept her mum and the club happy, and the spirits of the girls to see a star walk through the doors.
“And having her alongside Maddi Allen, we were really small last year and all of a sudden we have those two anchoring the middle.
“That meant those girls who got to play minutes last year were walking a heap taller and were freed up to play their natural games with elite bigs setting screens for them. Darcee is just such a good kid as well and she is so popular amongst the group, and important to the club.”
What Petrik wanted was to have a team based on having a strong defensive presence in the middle much like what Willetton had in their championship win in 2016 with Lou Tomlinson and even Perry Lakes last year with Nat Burton.
But he was banking on finding an Australian to fill that spot who would be an unrestricted player to allow him to find playmaking imports the calibre of Harrison and Lloyd.
Allen ended up falling in his lap somewhat unexpectedly when her agent came to terms with Petrik and he still can’t thank his lucky stars enough for her presence.
“We took the Willetton model when they had Lou Tomlinson where they were a good defensive team, but got her and became the best defensive team I’ve seen in my time,” he said.
“We knew Maddi was very similar in terms of her shot blocking but we knew she was quicker and having seen her in Canberra, we thought if we could ever get her then we could give this thing a real shake.
“With our imports we wanted to go and get two playmakers so to do that we needed an Aussie big. They are hard to find let alone an elite one, but Maddi is everything to us defensively.”
Petrik always knew the offensive prowess that Lloyd and Harrison would bring once they arrived in Rockingham because one thing he does go above and beyond with is doing his homework.
And Lloyd has delivered what he expected from the outset while Harrison was a little shy shooting early on, but is now jacking up the threes that Petrik wants of her.
So he is getting offensively what he thought he would, but both are proving a big step up defensively on what he could have even hoped in a best-case scenario.
“We knew they’d be good just because of the work we put into them. We had been into Harrison for two and-a-half years wanting to bring her out but we had Ibekwe two years ago and then last year we needed a big, and got (Chastity) Reed,” Petrik said.
“We’ve always known she’s good and she is just starting to warm up. We need her to launch five, six or seven threes a game minimum because if she goes at 40 per cent doing that, she is going to make us so much better.
“The fact she can play de facto point guard for us as well makes her a handful and a tough cover. D’Lesha Lloyd is a star. We had people in Queensland tell us that she had good character and three teams there wanted her. Maddi had also seen her and she told us how strong and physical she was.
“She has been terrific and the thing that is pleasing with both of them, which is hard to spot in scout, is that they are both elite defensively. That’s something you don’t see a lot of in game tape because you don’t know the schemes of the European coaches.
“They are both jets defensively and Lloyd wants to go against all the best players, like Standish. Harrison is the same deal and wants to know when we play the best big and guard, and she wants their best player every night.
“They might not average what a Sam or Cannon did for us, but at the other end of the court they are a nine or 10 defensively and that makes them really special.”