HE might prefer to not have to end the Kalamunda Eastern Suns’ season to reach the Grand Final, but the progression of the Lakeside Lightning with Craig Mansfield as coach has been impressive and he puts a lot of credit for that to the dedication of a deep and committed playing group.
After taking a year off from coaching following his impressive run at the helm at the Eastern Suns, Mansfield took on the challenge of a Lakeside team in 2016 that was coming off a one-win season in 2015.
However, he always knew they had a good core group there with a large contingent of young talent coming through the ranks and that improvement could come relatively quickly.
He brought Ali Schwagmeyer back to the SBL after previously coaching her at Kalamunda and the progression has been impressive with a quarter-final appearance in 2016, before losing to eventual champions Willetton, and a semi-final berth in 2017 before losing in three games to Mandurah.
The pain of going so close last year spurred on everyone at the Lightning and the majority of the group returned in 2018 while Courtney Byrnes was back along with the arrival of Mansfield’s sister Melissa Moyle from the Suns.
The result was a dominant regular season with Lakeside going 21-1 before beating the defending champion Perry Lakes Hawks in two hard fought quarter-final match ups and them hammering an undermanned Kalamunda by 51 points last Friday in Game 1 of the semi finals.
That leaves the Lightning one win from a Grand Final appearance with Game 2 of the semi final series at Ray Owen Sports Centre this Friday night as Mansfield chases the second championship decider of his coaching career, and the Lightning their fourth in the Women’s SBL.
The depth that Mansfield has ensured the Lightning continue to possess is a big reason for their success even though it’s easy to point at the performances of stars Schwagmeyer, Sydnee Fipps, Sam Roscoe and Ash Grant.
But the leadership and experience provided by Byrnes and Jess van Schie, and then Tiahrn Flynn, Paris Duffield, Courtney Green, Lizel Buckley and Moyle playing important roles is what has made Lakeside so impressive in 2018.
It’s that depth that made Mansfield confident they could get the job done last Friday night even with Schwagmeyer sidelined with a knee problem.
After a shaky start, they finished the first half strongly and ended up going on a 41-2 run either side of half-time before beating the Suns by 51 points to move to a win within a Grand Final appearance.
“Really it’s down to very little hard work from the coaches, the credit goes to the girls for that for the work they put in. You can come down here any given weekday and there’s two girls in the gym, there’s two girls on the court,” Mansfield said.
“There’s quite a good culture of that at Lakeside and that was pre-existing, that’s not something I have built. There’s a bunch of girls who are coachable and listen, and were receptive to new stuff and we train every week with our starters getting beaten at training sometimes.
“The scrimmage teams Ali is on doesn’t win every game, there are lots of more than capable of girls in our squad and we are obviously tested in that way this series.
“Mandurah are an example of deal with your injuries so there’s no point us crying over Ali as much as we’d love to have her. If you’ve got some depth and girls that work hard, and are resilient as a group, you can scratch things together and this week was a good example.”
Given Mansfield and his family’s strong links to Kalamunda and the years spent with the Suns, and the connections that remain, it was always going to be a little strange coaching against them in a semi-final series.
The positive at least for Mansfield is that if it wasn’t his team he was coaching in a Grand Final then there is no one he would be happier for than Kalamunda.
At the same time, he tries to put aside those feelings he still has for Kalamunda and always will attempt to treat them like a normal opponent, even if that means trying to end their season at Ray Owen Sports Centre this Friday night.
“It’s never 100 per cent normal going back to Kalamunda as an opposition coach just because there’s so many Suns people I care a lot about, but I wouldn’t say it would be weird and I don’t expect them to give us any grace either,” Mansfield said.
“We have so much respect for them that you are too focused on trying to find ways to beat them to get caught up with the peripheral series.
“I don’t think of it when we are prepping, planning, training and the game is going on, but part of me thinks that the good thing about these two clubs being in the semi finals is that one of us advances.
“If it’s them, then I’d be happier for them than I would be for anyone else we could lose to while obviously still being 90 per cent unhappy we lost. But by the following Friday I’d be happy for a whole host of people who’ve put hundreds and thousands of hours into that club, and supported me and still support Tom.
“I thought what Rebecca Motroni said about me last week was probably giving me too much credit but was very nice of her and good to hear. That’s the good side of it, the bad part is that I’d probably rather not have to go through the series and have one of us unhappy. It would be great if one of us were on the other side and we both made the Grand Final.”
While the Lightning’s season could hardly have gone better in 2018 losing just the one game so far, Mansfield hasn’t taken anything for granted along the way and always knew the challenges ahead from Kalamunda in the semi finals.
That was emphasised ahead of Game 1 with Schwagmeyer sidelined with a knee complaint even though that was offset with the Suns being without Alex Ciabattoni and Jewel Williams while Jennie Rintala went down injured during the game too.
But the Lightning knew Schwagmeyer wouldn’t be playing early last week and prepared accordingly.
“I give the girls a lot of credit because on Tuesday night before film I had said to Ali I wanted to make the decision Tuesday afternoon so we had two trainings to prepare,” Mansfield said.
“She told the girls Tuesday night before film and then we came out of that and probably had one of best five trainings of the year. They weren’t flat at all out of that and worked had, and the girls just had the attitude of putting their heads down and working even harder with Ali not out there.”
Mansfield is hopeful of Schwagmeyer playing this weekend to close the semi-final series with the Suns, but isn’t sure as yet how many minutes she could play or if the potential is there she only plays if it goes to a Game 3 back at Lakeside on Saturday night.
“Basically she is settling some inflammation down in her knee and then it’s about making sure we’re on top of how to strap her and what triggers it,” he said.
“Whether we have her back on a restricted minutes load or if she’s available for both games are still unknowns. Even in talking to the medical staff and the Lynx doctors and physios, even they say it’s crystal ball type of stuff. Optimistically we’ll get her back.”
The juggling act for Schwagmeyer is that as much as he desperately wants to return to the court with Lakeside, the reality is she has to make being 100 per cent healthy for the start of the WNBL season at the Perth Lynx her priority.
Having committed herself to playing at Lakeside the past three years to the point she could be counted as a local in the WNBL means that she is about to be rewarded for that dedication and can’t afford to jeopardise that to potentially return too early to win an SBL championship.
“When she came to me about it I told her to go to the Lynx doctors straightaway. I’ve had some talks with the Lynx physios and they’ve been great with how they’ve managed her,” Mansfield said.
“We obviously have had a conversation about how Lynx pre-season isn’t important for us compared to our finals but they want to make sure she’s ready to go. At the same time, at Lakeside we are really interested in Ali’s welfare and her career.
“Her playing Lynx has been a three-year project and she’s gutsed it out. So we don’t want to compromise her being ready to go for the Lynx so that’s why we’ve dealt with their medical staff the whole way through.
“We obviously want her to play for us but we won’t pressure her to take a risk on her welfare that she might regret down the track. The other thing is that knowing how determined how Ali is, if there’s a pathway to make it work she’ll doggedly find it. She’s that kind of character.”
While Lakeside went through the season so impressively losing just the once to the Perth Redbacks, they were tested in the quarter finals by the defending champion Perry Lakes Hawks who had a strong back half of the season to qualify for the playoffs.
While the Lightning won in two games, Mansfield was happy with the way they were tested even if the Hawks are vastly different opposition to what they are now facing from the Suns.
“I definitely think that Perry Lakes series for preparation in going forwards. It wouldn’t have helped if we had to play three games because we might have had a physical hangover from that, but in terms of playing two tough games at high intensity with a good atmosphere and the games being close made it good prep,” Mansfield said.
“I wouldn’t say it was necessarily great preparation for Suns though. The two teams stylistically are very different where Hawks are very Nat and Toni driven while Suns are Ciaba and Jennie driven.
“The difference is Hawks surround that with defence and they shot the ball well in our series whereas Suns generally surround it with a lot more shooting from the outside.
“So we had to almost unlearn some of the tendencies from playing Hawks to prepare for Suns because if we did the same thing we would have someone like Smith or Motroni or Williams hitting five threes. The atmosphere and game prep was good, but they’re two very different opponents.”