SOMETIMES it’s your absence that highlights your true worth and that was certainly the case for Mat Wundenberg and the Geraldton Buccaneers on Saturday night as the inspirational leader aims to return this weekend to keep that SBL championship dream alive.
While there are Colter Lasher, Earnest Ross, Marcus Alipate, Gokul Natesan, Aaron Ralph and Liam Hunt whose numbers surpass what Wundenberg provides for the Buccs in 2018, his true value is more than what the box score says.
That was clearly evident in Saturday night’s quarter-final Game 1 when the Buccs’ grand warrior of more than 400 SBL games was sitting courtside not suited up to play and he was forced to watch his team lose to the Rockingham Flames despite having finished the regular season in top spot.
The Buccaneers lost their way in the second half and it’s hard to imagine that happening quite to the same degree had he been suited up and playing, even as someone with more than 400 games under his belt who is 35 years of age averaging 3.3 points and 6.5 rebounds in 2018.
That loss puts the pressure back on the Buccaneers to return to Geraldton this weekend and needing to beat Greg Hire, Kevin White, Justin Beard and company both on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon to advance to a third straight semi-final series.
Wundenberg will be desperate to be back out there to lead his team on Saturday night as well as he continues to fight for that championship dream having taken part in a Grand Final in 2014, semi finals in 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017, and quarter finals in 2013, 2015 over the past decade alone.
Even before that there were more strong seasons and playoff appearances for Wundenberg and the Buccs, but that first championship since 2000 still remains elusive and continues to drive him on.
Even a few weeks ago now, the Buccs held a 30-year celebration game and the players from that 2000 championship team were heralded as legends.
Wundenberg would love nothing more than to be a championship winner too and to hold up that trophy in a month’s time in what could be his last SBL appearance. But now they just can’t afford to look past having to beat Rockingham twice this weekend for that to remain a chance.
“I know what it feels like not to hold it up and that’s not a nice feeling. I’m sure if it comes to that stage, I’ll enjoy it and it’ll cap off my career perfect and be the highlight of my career,” Wundenberg said.
“No matter who you talk to, everyone remembers the 2000 championship team. It would definitely be nice to win one and that’s obviously the aim, but we can’t look too far ahead and have to focus on a week at a time, especially now.
“I think top spot does mean a lot, we’ve got a great home crowd even though we have no issues being the away team. You’d rather have it than not have it. Definitely last year against Joondalup to play those last two games on their home court back-to-back is always tough to do down there.
“We dropped a game late last season to Mandurah which really hurt us in the end come playoffs. Looking back, that did hurt us last year by finishing third but this a new year with new challenges and we are excited still about what we did in the regular season.”
Wundenberg became the fourth player in Buccs history to reach 400 games behind Greg Brown (423), Ray Evans (412) and Jason Bunter (411) when he celebrated the mark back in Round 16 in a win at home over the Kalamunda Eastern Suns.
That puts him in elite company and solidifies him as an all-times great of Geraldton basketball, and even if he was embarrassed by the attention heaped upon him, he is proud of the achievement and of the competitive nature that has been the hallmark of his journey.
“I was slightly embarrassed about that milestone and the attention I received. We’ve got three absolute club legends who have done it before and it was a pretty emotional night,” Wundenberg said.
“We had a tough week leading up to it with a death in the Buccs family too so that meant there were mixed emotions on the night. But it was great the way the guys played and we had a good win so it was a nice feeling to celebrate a milestone like that.
“I just love to play basketball and to get out there and compete. I’m the world’s worst shooter but I’ll compete in every shooting drill and I’ll be firing and upset any time we lose one.
“I just love to compete and I love the challenge of playing basketball at this level against guys who are bigger than me. Usually I am undersized and undertalented against my opponent, but I just love to battle and I’ve had some great ones over the years which is what has kept me going.”
Speaking of that warrior-like mentality that Wundenberg has played with over his career that began back in 2004, the only player over that journey with a similar mindset and longevity is the Lakeside Lightning’s Jarrad Prue.
“Jarrad is one of the most humble guys yet fiercest competitors you’ll ever play against. He never says a word to you even though he talks to the refs a bit just like I do, but he’ll play 40 minutes and have one foul despite competing for every single rebound and loose ball,” he said.
“That’s just how he plays, he is fair and he doesn’t foul. He’s a pure defender and is so smart, and he’s just an animal on the rebounds. He’s definitely had the better of me over our careers and I’ve probably only had one good game against him. He’s an unreal competitor and I’ve loved those battles.”
As far as teammates go, it just wouldn’t seem like it’s the Buccs if you didn’t see the No. 23 of Wundenberg or No. 10 of Aaron Ralph out on the floor.
For Wundenberg, it just wouldn’t be the same without his best mate and he hopes more than anything they can share championship glory together before their careers come to a close.
“Obviously we want to win one together after the journey we’ve had. He’s played about 370 games now and I’ve been here for all bar a couple of them,” he said.
“It is awesome playing with your best mates and we are all pretty tight out here in the team. It would be unreal to achieve it with him, but right now we can’t legitimately afford to look past this week. We have to play the right basketball and hope it works out best for us.”
Given how he has been the heart and soul of the Buccs organisation for more than a decade now, it’s hard to imagine Wundenberg never played basketball growing up and kind of just fell into joining the Buccaneers.
Seeing his shooting stroke and it might become a little more obvious, but after being a state representative at polocrosse, he instantly fell in love with basketball and the Buccs organisation and has gone to cement himself as one of the greatest warriors the SBL has seen.
“I played polocrosse as a junior so I never had anything to do with basketball, but then I played a couple of games and got into the competitiveness of it, and since then the Buccs have been everything to me,” Wundenberg said.
“They treat you like royalty and the players really get looked after here, and everyone is so close from the GM to the bar staff to the floor wipers and everyone involved. It has been 15 years and she’s been a big part of my life.”
Over the course of the last 14 years, Wundenberg has only been part of two seasons where the Buccaneers didn’t qualify for the finals and in 10 of the 14 seasons, they have attacked the playoffs from a top four position only to reach one Grand Final in that time.
That has included a Grand Final appearance in 2014, stunning loss to a hot Goldfields Giants in the first round of 2015 and then Game 3 semi-final losses on the road the last two years to the Cockburn Cougars and Joondalup Wolves.
By the end of last year, the Buccs decided to head in a slightly different direction with only Wundenberg, Ralph and James Paringatai as the mainstays to continue on while the likes of Dwayne Benjamin, Mo Barrow, Jackson Hussey and Matt Hancock moved on.
That saw the arrival of Colter Lasher, Gokul Natesan, Marcus Alipate and then after the start of the season, the son of a legend Liam Hunt and former Perth Wildcats NBL player Earnest Ross.
It’s been a new-look group but one that entered the playoffs on an eight-game winning run and having won 17 of 18 games to secure the minor premiership before a shock Game 1 quarter-final loss to Rockingham on the road.
But Wundenberg knows it’s really what happens from now on that will determine if the changes have worked fully or not.
“If it’s not broken, you don’t fix it but at the same time I think we felt we had to tweak a couple of things after last season. I felt like we had all the right pieces but we weren’t fully equipped or functioning perfectly as a team as we could have been,” Wundenberg said.
“I felt Dwayne was an absolutely awesome athlete and could fill it up on any given night, but for whatever reason his inconsistency hurt us and hurt us at finals time. That’s no disrespect to Dwayne because if you want someone to fill it up, that’s what he does but we thought we’d instead be better off with a few pieces who did a bit of everything.
“Then Earnest came up and we jumped at signing him, and he was more than excited to come out here. He has fitted in really well and I never knew anything about him until he got here, but I’m definitely surprised by how well he’s fitted in and the character he is.
“He is such a level guy and has slotted in well as has Marcus, whose outside shooting has generally been great for us and he’s really putting in the work. Having Liam and Ralphy coming off the bench gives us that scoring punch that we haven’t had the last few years.
“We’ve had great role players come off the bench but to have two legitimate scoring starters come off the bench has been one of our biggest strengths this year. Everyone has been playing their roles perfectly and sometimes it’s Gokul hitting his shots, or other nights it’s Marcus or Earnest or whoever, but we always have three or four scorers and ball handlers on the floor at any one time.
“That gives us some variety and flexibility at the offensive end. The coaches and the club wanted to go in a different direction this year and try something a bit different, and so far it’s worked but it means nothing if we don’t do well in the playoffs.”