KALAMUNDA Eastern Suns coach Tom Knowles is proud of how far his program has come over the past 18 months and he’s excited about the future based around improving young talent, but that doesn’t mean they won’t throw everything at the Lakeside Lightning first.
Knowles was excited by the challenge at the Eastern Suns to lead the Women’s program forward when he took over ahead of the 2017 season and he wanted to base all of that on the young and emerging Kalamunda talent.
Not only that, but he wanted to create a culture and atmosphere where the local community felt proud of, and connected to, their team to a point where families would want to come and support them.
To now have reached the semi finals in the Women’s SBL in 2018 and coming off a record crowd at Ray Owen Sports Centre last Friday night to see them eliminate the Willetton Tigers, and it’s fair to say everything Knowles envisioned 18 months ago is starting to come to fruition.
While Jennie Rintala and Alex Ciabattoni have been superb in 2018 for Kalamunda, it’s the group of locals led by Rebecca Motroni, Jewel Williams, Marlee Bushe-Jones, Jorjah Smith and Jessie Edwards that Knowles can’t help to take great pride in seeing them shine on the big stage.
Knowles is excited by what the future holds for the Suns too, but first and foremost they will be throwing everything at trying to topple the regular season champion Lightning in the semi finals starting Friday night at Lakeside Recreation Centre.
“It’s fantastic for us to be in this situation and I love it. I love what we’ve been able to fight through and accomplish this year, and I hope we can keep most of the group together and keep a little bit of momentum going to get started reasonably early for next year and keep getting better,” Knowles said.
“We’ve got a bit better defensively and that has certainly helped us and I think we are the second best team offensively, Lakeside is the first, so that’s another reason why it will probably be an interesting game on Friday night.”
Going back to last Friday night where the Suns closed out their quarter-final series in two games against the Tigers, it was a special occasion to Knowles for a lot of reasons – not the least to see the Kalamunda community rally behind them.
“It was fantastic and there was such a great feeling there on Friday night It was a really emotional night and we’ve had Jennie’s husband Ryan doing a heap of work on social media for us, and he’s generated so much interest just in a couple of weeks,” he said.
“It just shows the power of social media and to have all those families and kids there at the game, which has been a passion and a focus of mine, meant a lot to have them come along and want to watch a game of basketball. That makes it more enjoyable for those involved with the team too and the crowd was amazing for us.”
Understandably, Knowles and his Suns team are happy to have advanced to the semi finals against a Willetton team that had played in the past three semi-final series’ including two Grand Finals a championship triumph in 2016.
“We were ecstatic and probably what was a little bit more amazing was the effort the week before to get us there,” Knowles said.
“We were completely undermanned and it was a real battle but three or four of the girls stepped up big time, and just kept fighting, and got us across the line with a whole heap of adversity.
“That was really the big game for me to go in there and beating them at home when they were ready to go and pretty confident.
“We got the job done and that was an even more impressive win as far as I’m concerned but last week to get them again and win through to the semis when a lot of people pegged us as a bottom four team was fantastic.”
Coming into the job at the Suns, Knowles liked the fact that the club wanted to back in their local products and he’s made sure that has continued happening over the past 18 months and will stay that way moving forward.
“One of the reasons I was keen to come coach here is the focus on the local girls and that’s always been a passion of mine,” he said.
“I’ve got a couple of girls coming through that I started coaching when they were 10 years old and if I can coach them on an SBL court that would be super exciting for me.
“If I can look at the program and see that just about 95 per cent of the girls are all Suns juniors that have come through or been here for a number of years, that’s what I’d like to do.”
While it’s hard to ignore the contributions of Rintala and Ciabattoni to the Suns’ success this year, without question the impact the likes of Motroni, Williams, Bushe-Jones, Smith, Hannah King and Edwards continue to make is why Knowles is so proud of his group in 2018.
“I just love the fact that all those girls just keep on fighting. I sort of look at where we are at and that we lost Alecia with an ACL injury and I think if we were at full strength and hadn’t had people coming in and out where we could be,” Knowles said.
“I’m sure we would have done better than we actually have and that’s really encouraging along with the fact that we have a ton of young girls who aren’t in the squad yet who are worthy of being there going forward. That’s really exciting too.”
Knowles also certainly can’t fault what he is getting inside from Rintala and from playmaking guard Ciabattoni.
Rintala is averaging 19.0 points and 9.6 rebounds a game this season with Ciabattoni contributing 20.6 points, 9.0 boards and 5.4 assists with Knowles most pleased with their buy in to the group, and their commitment to continue to improve.
“The good thing for me too is that they’ve got better. Alex was even fitter when she came back after being away following the Lynx season and she has got fitter and better again throughout the season,” he said.
“Her whole game and shooting has improved and the same thing with Jennie. After training all last season with the Lynx she has become quicker and fitter, and making better decisions as a result.
“Then going away and playing in Germany as well, she is heaps better than she was this time last year.
“It’s not just the local girls that I like to help, it’s the restricted players as well and I’d like to help them no matter whether they are here for one or three or four years. I’d like them walk away thinking that we did something to help their game.”
While the Suns did well to finish fifth at the end of the regular season and now are in the semi finals preparing to battle Lakeside, Knowles can’t help but think what might have been without the challenges that 2018 has presented.
However, a lot of the hurdles were ones he knew would happen aside from injuries highlighted by a devastating knee injury to his daughter Alecia Knowles.
But Knowles couldn’t be prouder of the way the Suns are progressing and what they have achieved so far in 2018.
“We knew that we were going to have a fair bit of adversity to deal with this year and that we’d have players away towards the end of the regular season, and into playoffs and we are getting towards the end of that patch now,” Knowles said.
“We always knew that it would be tough and that there would be a chance we miss out on a couple of games towards the end of the season, but the girls worked incredibly hard to give us a bit of a buffer in fourth spot.
“It would have been nice to hold on to that instead missing out on head-to-head but the result with our wins versus losses compared to last year was fantastic.
“At the start of this season I thought it was going to be pretty tough because the reality is we lost four players from last year, who all could and would start which was significant for us.
“So there was a heap of rebuilding for us to do and a heap of girls had to step up, and I don’t think anybody has stepped on the floor this year who hasn’t improved.
“We’ve had girls come in and not play an awful lot but come in for some games and win them for us with a couple of plays. That’s what I want. If I can walk away from the season and everyone got better, I got better and the club got better, then we’ve ticked a lot of boxes there as far as I’m concerned.”