WITH a group of locals used to success topped off by the experience, leadership and quality of NBL veterans Greg Hire and Kevin White meant that Brad Samuelson had faith what the Rockingham Flames could achieve if they just reached the finals, and that has now been justified.
After a season of building and learning in 2017 in his first campaign as head coach at the Flames, Samuelson had high hopes of some rapid improvement in 2018 but it’s fair to say things never quite got going how he hoped.
A season-ending injury to impressive import Josh Ritchart sure threw the cat amongst the pigeons and things just never quite settled how Samuelson had hoped they might.
The result was the addition of Illawarra Hawks captain Kevin White to a team featuring Perth Wildcats vice-captain Greg Hire. While what they give on game night has been tremendous, it has too presented challenges with their inability to regularly train with their Flames teammates.
Luke Travers, too, hasn’t been able to train regularly with the team and only Melusi Mkhwayanzi, averaging just four minutes, has played all 28 matches for the Flames in 2018 highlighting the juggling act that Samuelson has had to contend with.
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Considering Travers has missed 19 games this season, Jarryd Griffin nine, Hire seven, Curtis Washington seven and Luke Roberts seven with White replacing Ritchart midway through, the Flames never quite reached their potential during the season.
That meant that at least from the outside expectations were low heading into the quarter finals against the regular season champion Geraldton Buccaneers as the No. 8 seed.
But the Flames pulled off a terrific Game 1 performance at home before finishing the job in Geraldton on Saturday night with Samuelson now content with the way they’ve learned to deal with the challenges including not having Hire, White and Travers training on a regular basis.
“It’s been an interesting run for us this year and it’s something that we’ve all pretty much got used to and accepted,” Samuelson said.
“We are quite content and happy with the current set up and those three gentlemen will be here for our last training session before each game, and they are pretty much on the page through film, scouting reports and everything that we send them.
“Then with the time they’ve been able to spend with us, we’ve been pretty much polished in the areas that we need. Once they arrive it uplifts us another notch and we are ready to go for that weekend’s game.”
While Rockingham’s women have played in three of the last six Grand Finals for two championships, the men are yet to reach a Grand Final.
Samuelson certainly knows just how big of a job they have ahead of them against the Perry Lakes Hawks starting with Game 1 this Saturday night at Bendat Basketball Centre, but he knows what the Flames reaching the Grand Final would mean to everyone in Rockingham.
“The excitement would be incredible and there would be a lot of personal feeling from the old stalwarts here of the basketball club,” Samuelson said.
“If we did make it through, I hope they have some extra stands out at Perry Lakes Stadium because they won’t be able to fit all the people from Rockingham in. I know they can only sell X amounts of tickets, but I’d be opening up the doors and seeing what you can fit into that place.
“It would be absolutely amazing if we got there. I remember being with Ryan Petrik on that first Grand Final loss and then first Grand Final win for the girls and the atmosphere, and involvement of the Rockingham district was absolutely fantastic.
“I think that would escalate ten-fold if it was the men’s program and it would be something very interesting to be part of.”
While Rockingham might not have ever generated great momentum during the regular season, all Samuelson wanted was for them to reach the playoffs and then they could make a real run at things.
They did just sneak into eighth spot with a 12-14 record, but that counted for nothing as they beat a Buccs team in two games who had won 18 of 19 heading into the playoffs.
For Samuelson to see his team playing the best they have all year at the most important time is ecxiting, but it’s no surprise considering the winning culture created through the juniors with the likes of Beau and Dain Samuelson, Justin, Kyle and Callum Beard, Roberts, and company.
“It’s very exciting to be playing this way at this time of the year. It’s all about getting to the last part of the season and into the finals campaign where it’s basically a new season. To be able to deliver immediately, which was our intent, was very pleasing,” he said.
“I think the biggest thing for us is that there is still room for improvement most definitely and if we continue to improve every game that we approach, that will hold us in good stead.
“There’s a lot of new people at the club at the moment that probably don’t realise or understand what we’ve been through over the last 10 years here at the club, but our core group have gone through WABL campaigns year in, year out and been very successful.
“The main group here lost in under-12s by one-point in the last final and went through to under-20s together not losing a grand final. They are an exciting bunch and they do know how to compete in finals basketball which we saw over the last two weeks.”
Samuelson has made it clear his focus was to ensure the Flames was made up of promising Rockingham locals who had enjoyed tremendous success at underage level, and who has coached for a lot of those years along the way.
That was his mantra when coming into the job heading into 2017 and it certainly hasn’t changed since. When you take out Hire, White and Washington, this is a Rockingham team locally based and Samuelson takes great pride in that.
“We said from the word go at the start of the season that we had 15 contracted players that were Rockingham junior based and at least 10 of those players who have been under certain systems and been with me since they were about nine years of age,” he said.
“We knew the ability of these players was there, it was more about belief and maturity building within the SBL campaign that they could deliver at the right times. We’ve had a lot of moments this year where certain people have put their hands up but collectively we haven’t put that together.
“But especially over the last two games we have and whether it was the 12 on the bench or three or four that couldn’t be there, everyone has put their hand up during training or the game, and executed extremely well.”
One local Rockingham product who has taken the next step as a leader and all-round player in recent times is Flames captain Ryan Godfrey.
Always a talented and capable player, his leadership and defence has gone through the roof in recent weeks and that was topped off with a stunning shooting display Saturday night in Geraldton where he went for 31 points, hitting 5/7 from downtown.
Samuelson couldn’t speak more highly of the growth he’s seen in Godfrey.
“We’ve given Ryan the green light to just go out there to lead and play with his own demeanour. We did emphasise to him this year that one of his best assets was his defensive ways on the basketball,” Samuelson said.
“We used to watch him years ago under coaches like Mike Ellis where his defensive ways of keeping chest to chest, and being very aggressive on the ball was just so good to watch.
“We think that he lost his way through trying to be a scorer over the last few years, but over the past six weeks he has progressed again defensively and his last three weeks have been absolutely excellent.
“That’s allowed his offensive game to thrive as well and he has the green light to go out and play. It’s very exciting for the young man.”
Looking back on the series wrapping win for the Flames in Geraldton on Saturday night, it was an emotional occasion for all involved simply because they knew what a massive effort it was to knock such a stacked team who had been in such great form heading into the playoffs.
“It was such an intense night and there was a lot of emotion around at the time,” Samuelson said.
“During the last quarter we just had to keep our minds on the job to try and get the job finished, and each minute as it went by we felt a little more comfortable but still right to the dying end we had to be right on the ball.
“The emotions after the game were quite incredible. There were a few tears shed by a number of people, coach included, and that purely because of the fight that we had to go up there with and the way we fought it out. It was just very pleasing.
“I think in general we always believed that we could beat them, whether it be in two games or three, it was just a matter of taking each game as it came.
“Obviously once we were successful here at home we thought the possibilities we could go and get the job done on Saturday night, and we thought it was quite paramount to win that first night.
“Our endeavours were to make it quite successful because we knew how tough trying to win on the Sunday would be.”