JESS Jakens’ heart and soul is with the Perth Redbacks and she has thrived this season with her shackles unleashed offensively and she can’t help but be excited by what the next month in the Women’s SBL could entail.
Jakens is just 23 years of age but has spent more than half her life already playing basketball with the Redbacks including now seven seasons at SBL level, but it has been until 2018 that she’s been part of a squad that is a genuine championship contender.
Jakens has been around the Redbacks’ SBL team now ever since 2011 and there has been a couple of false dawns of them being ready to take that next step reaching the playoffs in 2012, 2016 and 2017 but they haven’t been able to get out of the first round.
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There were also the especially tough 2014 and 2015 seasons where they only won a combined seven games, but never has Jakens faltered in her commitment to the Redbacks in the hope that a 2018 season could be on the horizon.
The arrival of coach Charles Nix and recruitment of Kayla Steindl (nee Standish), Mikayla Pirini and Makailah Dyer have made the world of difference and the result was the Redbacks finishing the regular season at 17-5.
They then comfortably won their opening quarter-final game 92-67 against the Stirling Senators last Friday night but it’s not just the new coach or new players that have made the difference.
Jakens is a prime example of a fire being lit under the remaining players at the Redbacks too and now that they are one game away from the semi finals and potentially three games from a first Grand Final appearance since 2001.
She isn’t afraid to dream of what could eventuate over the next month either.
“I’m unbelievably excited. I actually get a little bit nervous thinking about the fact that there is a high potential that we could play in a Grand Final,” Jakens said.
“It’s just exciting to know that the last seven years in the SBL and 12 years at the club could potentially pay off to something really big. I’m so excited to be part of that.
“There potentially were times I might have thought this would never happen, but at the end of the day I knew that if I was ever going to win a championship then it would be here.
“Whether that was in five or 10 years’ time, then you only need to look at people like Joel Wagner and Michael Vigor in the men’s team and they stuck around through all their hard times. That’s something that I endeavoured to do as well so it’s close to my heart to have stuck with this club my whole career.”
It’s hard to ignore the impact that Steindl, Dyer and Pirini have made on the Redbacks’ rise to championship contender status this season, but equally important has been the way someone like Jakens has performed.
Even through the tough times over the last four years, she has remained the heart and soul of the team but whether it was the role asked of her or just the way it turned out, she had become more of that grunt player who did all the dirty work rebounding, defending and providing the hustle.
Her offence had somewhat taken a backseat, but that has been anything but the case in 2018 and she has been outstanding averaging 11.2 points and 4.9 rebounds a game while shooting a supremely efficient 54.6 per cent from the field and 70.0 per cent from the foul line.
She certainly feels as confident within herself and about her game at the offensive end than she ever has.
“I definitely feel the most confident than I have over the last few years. Coming into the SBL to start with, I was a younger prospect and was able to put up some OK numbers because people didn’t really know who I was,” Jakens said.
“Then the league sort of caught on to what I could do but this year Nix has especially helped with my growth and given me a lot of confidence that I can play. He’s allowing me to have the opportunities to score and contribute in the way I’m best at right now.
“I think definitely this year coming into the season and knowing we’d play as part of a colourful squad with players who have played all over the world that realistically for me to contribute the way Nixy wanted me to that I had to step up my game.
“Outside of practice, I have been working on my hard more than ever and I’ve been lifting with Sean Connolly which has helped me ten folds as well – especially in the confidence department.
“Coming into a squad like this, you have to recognise that you don’t want to let your teammates down by being a weaker link.
“You want to contribute at a high level so you have to do the work outside of practice and that’s something that we really drill into young kids as well to create a strong foundation. It comes back to just knowing you need to work hard to get better.”
Jakens wasn’t sure what to expect with the arrival of Nix as coach at the Redbacks for 2018 in his first tilt coaching in the Women’s SBL. But from the start, she loved what he was picturing for the team and the longer the year has gone on, the more she has enjoyed playing under him.
“Even from my first meeting with Nixy late last year I definitely felt that there was a different sort of vibe to last year. As a club, we made big strides to sort of contribute more to the women’s program so that we actually have the opportunity to be a bit better on the floor,” Jakens said.
“But this year I actually think we have taken a lot of what happened last year on board, made some more changes and it’s all worked out really positively.
“You probably should ask him how much of a shock the change is, but he’s definitely come on board extremely well. He just sees us as athletes rather than viewing us as men or women and obviously there are some defining factors that are a little bit different.
“But if you can communicate with people and have the interpersonal skills to do that at a high level then you’ll always be fine. Nixy definitely came in with a great understanding of what we needed and an open mind, and I know all the girls definitely appreciate that.”
The 17-5 record the Redbacks compiled in 2018 equals what they achieved in a Grand Final year in 2001 when they were defending champions.
Jakens knows the impact the arrival of Pirini, Dyer and Standish have made in that, but equally has been the likes of Bianca Donovan, Jess Hughes (before her knee injury), Lori Ashworth, Denielle Lipscombe and Alix Hayward who have remained loyal.
She also feels the club is right behind the group more than ever before during her career as well.
“I can’t even remember the last time we won eight games in a season let alone finished in second position with a team that I really enjoy playing with and a great set of coaching staff that are definitely pushing us to be better,” she said.
“Their recruitment has been fantastic with Mikayla Pirini, Mak Dyer and Kayla Standish, and that has really contributed to the overall lifting of the entire squad, especially the people who have been around for a while.
“I think the club has always been behind us but definitely this year the whole vibe as a club has improved. The championship winning of the men last year has really brought a sense of pride to be a Redback and to play for the Redbacks when in the past we’ve kind of had that lower standard of play in the eyes of other people.
“It seemed like the standard was lower for you to get a game here, especially on the women’s side, but we’ve brought the right people in now to change that and the right people to support us as well.”
It’s not just Jakens who has remained committed to the Redbacks for a long time. The club is a huge part of the life of all her family and beyond that with teammates of hers for a long time, which makes this run towards vying for the championship all the more special.
“My mum is the manager of the men’s team, I’ve played here since I was 12 years old and my brothers played and my dad has contributed in different facets of the club,” Jakens said.
“It’s also really important for me to play with people like Mikayla Pirini who I played with in high school and Lori Ashworth, Jess Hughes I’ve played my entire junior career.
“I’ve played with Alix Hayward as long as I’ve been in the SBL the last seven years and our assistant coach Nadia Parora I’ve known since she was 12 years old as well to give a true indication of my age right now.
“Then watching kids like Nes’eya Williams and Pearl Coppin grow from not having even played WABL yet to now being my teammates is something that’s special to me definitely.
“When you go through those hard times you appreciate being able to win now and finishing second on the ladder was close to my heart because I know how hard we worked to achieve that, and the people who stuck around through the hard times would be feeling the same.”