WHEN Michael Clarke was appointed coach at the Kalamunda Eastern Suns he knew it would be a gradual process to hopefully build something that can produce sustained success, and it’s hard to argue with the continual steps forward his team is taking.
When Clarke was appointed head coach for the 2016 Men’s SBL season, it was a complete build from scratch that was required for the Eastern Suns after they had amassed a horror 12-66 record the previous three seasons.
Clarke was up for the challenge but he wanted to do things the right way and to do it by basing it on young, local talent and teaching and developing them to play the game the way he wanted it played.
There would be no shortcuts and Clarke only wanted players who were committed for the long haul and he also hoped the club would show the faith in him to have the time to see his long-term vision through.
Clarke, and wife Kelly, have thrown themselves full-heartedly into life at the Eastern Suns and on and off the court, continue to go above and beyond what’s required as a head coach to try to give their team everything they can, and to see his vision through.
That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been tough moments and critics aplenty along the way over the past three years for the game style Clarke has had his team playing, and when things have gone wrong with some big losses like the 80-point horror show at Willetton back in 2016.
But the progress Clarke has overseen for the Suns can’t be ignored and it deserves to be admired that he has stuck to his guns, to his development model and to his game style to have made significant strides forward.
Coming off a 2-24 season when he took over as coach, Clarke led the Eastern Suns to winning seven games each the last two years, and already with five rounds remaining, nine in 2018.
While the win-loss record over the three years highlight things are heading in the right direction, it’s about more than that for Clarke and he takes pride in the way players like Jono Diaz, Kerrod Horn, Ryan Blanchett, Cooper Lowe, Carl Aylett, Tim Squire, among others, have been at the forefront.
Now with five games of the 2018 season remaining, the Eastern Suns are a genuine chance of returning to the playoffs with games to go against Geraldton, Perry Lakes, Mandurah, Willetton and the South West Slammers.
Along the way this season the Suns have proven they can take it to the top teams recording wins over the likes of the Hawks, Senators, Flames, Redbacks and Lightning, while losing to those below them like the Giants, Magic, Cougars and Eagles have hurt.
But Clarke likes to focus on the positive steps his team is taking and knows finding consistency is now their next step.
“I like to be positive and upbeat about things and I’ve said to them a number of times now that when they are playing to their potential, they can beat anyone in the league. I really believe that,” Clarke said.
“We are hard to stop when we are going, we can score a lot of points and our defensive pressure can produce results.
“I have a belief in this playing in group in Year 3 of what we’ve built that they can match it with anyone in the league. But they have to put together four solid quarters and be consistent. That’s been the challenge for us this year.”
While the Suns tried to cling to hope of being in the playoff race this time last year, it’s a genuine possibility right now in 2018 with them currently sitting ninth at 9-12 heading into this week’s trip to Geraldton during a challenging period on the road.
“Every game is a huge game now and one that we really do have to win if we want to take that opportunity of ending up in a playoff position,” he said.
“There’s not going to be any let up for us and we are in the middle of being on the road for a month or so now and we just have to find a way to grind it out, and hopefully reach our potential. It’s not going to be easy and we wouldn’t want it to be.
“It is challenging being on the road and you’re just not as comfortable as you are in your familiar surrounds, hoops and we like playing at home.
“We have played well at home this year so it is a challenge to be on the road for an extended period but we knew it was coming and hopefully we’re prepared for it, and can get enough wins in this stretch to keep our dream alive.”
For Clarke, he’s proud that his team is a genuine playoff contender and he gets a feeling that his playing group not only wants to make it this year, but wants to build something for the long-term that can bring success to a program at Kalamunda that is yet to finish with a winning record.
“It’s unfamiliar territory for us but I think we’ve taken that extra step this year and now we find ourselves with a realistic chance at this stage of the year,” Clarke said.
“It’s definitely an improvement on last year and it would be a great reward for the guys if they could get some playoff experience because it’s been six years in the making.
“It means a lot to the players to try to make their own piece of history and they don’t take anything for granted.
“For some of them, and I think of Kerrod Horn who had a record 12-66 in the three years prior to me getting here, it’s been a long hard journey and it really means something for them to win games now, and the prospect of making playoffs.
“For some clubs that might be a run of the mill thing but to us it would be really special.”
Clarke and the Eastern Suns have also created a good enough atmosphere for import guard Courtney Belger to have now returned for a third season when it perhaps could have been easier, and more financially rewarding, for him to sign elsewhere.
The additions of Kevin Davis and Louis Timms this season have also improved their frontcourt significantly giving them genuine weapons inside at both ends of the floor.
But because Clarke is in the third year of his vision after two years of development, he felt his group had improved to the point where having pieces like Davis, Timms and Belger topping up his local contingent would click to the point where they would be genuine playoff threats.
“You’ve got to remember for the first part of the season we were pretty lean on and managed to string together enough wins to stay in it,” he said.
“Now we are gaining form and momentum at the right time of the year and I’d like to think that we can carry that through for the remainder of the season.
“We are more rounded now and we’ve added pieces in where we’ve needed them. We didn’t do that straightaway because it really wouldn’t have made a difference at that stage.
“We had to build the foundation first and then add those pieces as we developed and progressed. I think now we have a really good group with a lot of potential with pieces we have been missing over the past couple of years.”
But for Clarke, it’s not just about giving the ball to his stars like Belger to run the show or to dump it inside to Davis or Timms. He wants every one of his players to be just as important a part of things on the floor and that’s why he has a deep squad at his disposal.
Logan Viskovich and Jamieson Lewis are both enjoying their opportunities they might not have received elsewhere while Clarke is proud the likes of Horn, Blanchett, Diaz, Squire and company remain important to the group’s success.
“Carl Aylett and Cooper Lowe are another two of your young local kids who are having breakout seasons as well. I never know who is going to stand up and deliver on any given night and that’s a great problem to have,” Clarke said.
“It could come from any one of 10 guys who can score well and contribute well on the court. That’s the way we like it, we think our depth of squad is one of the better ones in the league and that’s an advantage that we try to exploit.”
Developing a culture and style of play that was their own and something all the players could buy into and take ownership of is something that Clarke wanted to develop when he took over as coach at Kalamunda back in 2016.
There have been some rocky moments along the way, and there might be more, but everything without question is heading in the right direction. Clarke is proud of the way he has done that by backing in players from the Kalamunda district more than anything.
“Our culture and style of play is so fundamental and we don’t just give lip service to those things, we really mean it. We have a very tangible, unique way of playing and everyone buys in and enjoys the journey,” Clarke said.
“I’m really proud that it’s our kids doing it our own way, and that’s starting to prove to be successful now when many people doubted whether it ever could be. For the guys, it’s just reward for a lot of hard work.
“We are extremely proud of our approach and I wouldn’t have it any other way. We want to develop a team, not assemble a team and subject to money anyone could assemble a team. But you need something that is sustainable and will live on in the future for the long-term.
“Unless you give your young kids a chance who are going to be around for a while, it really is a come and go sort of thing which I was never interested in. The traditional SBL way of doing things and way of playing wasn’t something I just wanted to come in and repeat.”