JUST six weeks after a heartbreaking Grand Final loss, the Joondalup Wolves were inspired to start pre-season training at the unveiling of HBF Arena and that dedication, and meticulous planning, has them in a fourth straight decider but for coach Ben Ettridge it’s about much more than that.
The Wolves continue to set the standard in the SBL as evidenced by them preparing for a fourth straight Men’s SBL Grand Final and a sixth in the past eight years as they attempt to add a fourth championship banner to the wall this Saturday night at Bendat Basketball Centre against the Perry Lakes Hawks.
The planning for Grand Final night 2018 for the Wolves began way back on October 14 last year at the unveiling of the club’s new HBF Arena venue and only six weeks after they had lost a second straight Grand Final.
It would have been understandable if the players had wanted more time off, and Ettridge was prepared for the group to decide either way, but motivated by successive Grand Final losses and inspired by their commitment to each other and buoyed with a new venue, they wanted to immediately begin preparing for 2018.
The core playing group including Trian Iliadis, Seb Salinas, Rob Huntington, Reece Maxwell, Jordan Wellsteed, Rhys Smyth, Ben Ironmonger, Sean Easther and Damian Matacz all committed themselves to do everything they could to be firing come the back end of 2018.
With the additions too of Brian Sullivan and Jalen Billups, by the time the season rolled around the Wolfpack was firing and they won the first five, and 16 of the first 17 matches.
They ended up losing four of six matches at one point late June and early July, but for Ettridge and the Wolves their eye was always on the bigger picture.
Their plans put in place way back in October wanted them to be peaking and hopefully at their best health by the business end of the season, not the midway point.
So those losses weren’t of great concern and even less so when they did well to bounce back and beat Lakeside, Rockingham and Mandurah to close the regular season at 21-5 in second position.
They were nearing their peak and because of the work load of the key players managed during the season, they could have their minutes upped in the playoffs and the result is they’ve rarely been troubled in cruising into the Grand Final after sweeps of the Willetton Tigers and Stirling Senators.
It is the depth of the Wolves squad that has enabled Ettridge to manage the group to the point where he can now play the likes of Iliadis, Sullivan, Billups and Huntington for big minutes because they haven’t been driven into the ground during the regular season.
He feels that’s something they have done better this year than past seasons but he credits the playing group for their dedication and commitment to one another, and to getting the best out of themselves while representing the club in the right way.
“That goes back to October 14 last year when we started our pre-season and everything we put in place was with the vision that over the last month of the season and the playoffs that our guys would be as close to 100 per cent as possible,” Ettridge said.
“Everyone goes into finals series pretty bruised and you’re never going to be 100 per cent, and our guys have work, weddings and lives outside of basketball. We went through the fixtures and worked out which games guys were going to miss, and we managed to get at least two weekends off into just about everyone.
“What you see now is that for the last three weeks of the season and then the entire playoff run, we’ve probably only had one player change to our roster and not at all during the playoffs. We’ve had our 12 the last four weeks and that creates that model of consistency because those 12 guys are practice at Tuesday and Thursday, and recovery on Monday.
“They are doing all the things together that builds that bond. No one has missed a session the last six weeks, no one has missed a game and we’ve all been there. That level of consistency is one of the biggest differences we’ve had this year.
“We’ve managed work loads a lot better and now if Trian, Robbie, Jalen and Brian are playing over 30 minutes a game, it’s really the first time all year we’ve done it and they are relishing it. That extra five or six minutes is an extra period of their quality and we are able to do that because of managing work loads and being ready for this last month of the season.”
What makes Ettridge extra proud about what is happening at the Wolfpack is the fact that they have kept a core group together now for this period of sustained success, but it’s also based on providing clear pathways for players to come up through their district that leads to an SBL future.
For Ettridge, while winning and reaching Grand Finals is great, it’s about more than that and the bond he has with his players, and vice versa, is based around much more than winning a championship at the end of the day or not.
And that’s exactly how he would like it to be and as a result he can never question the commitment of everyone involved.
“At the end of the day, I know I’ve got a bunch of boys that will go out and run through a brick wall for me if I ever asked them to, not that I ever would. That’s pretty amazing I think,” Ettridge said.
“You ask any of these guys and I don’t talk about winning, I talk about them being better men, better husbands and better dads. These guys make a lot of sacrifices to be part of this team in a league that is semi-professional and demands a lot.
“To see those guys who have been there for the longest to actually be turning around and giving back to our club, to our Division 1 and our under-20s is the thing that I’m most proud of. That’s the part that you look at and know that you’re impacting men and how they go about their business, and how they conduct themselves.
“That’s why we have the best fans in the league and that’s because of the qualify individuals in our team. If I have played one per cent or a 10 per cent role in them becoming better as men then they have played an 80 or 90 per cent part in me becoming a better coach. Grand Finals come and go but the relationships that these guys are making and having is going to last for a long time.”
What Ettridge is not about is individual accolades or recognition, provided he is creating the right environment for his players and they are setting the right examples for everyone at the club and in the district, he will be happy.
He has that attitude because of the strong role models he has had, and continues to have, and he wants to make sure he leaves the club in a better place than he found it, and the same for each individual he coaches.
“I’ve had a couple of messages from some of my former coaches and I spoke to my dad after we won into the Grand Final, and they are the guys that helped me understand the things that are important,” he said.
“One of the things that was said to me a long time ago was that you never want to be someone’s last coach. Growing up I wasn’t the most talented player and I had a lot of coaches telling me I wasn’t good enough and that I didn’t belong in different places, but I never wanted to tell a player that as a coach.
“I might have had to cut people and told them they aren’t quite the right fit for what we’ve got, but they’ve at least gone on to play at other clubs or found another avenue to be involved in basketball.
“Never has someone left our club wanting to walk away from basketball completely and that’s from the example set for me from people like my dad, CJ Jackson, John Triscari and the guys who always saw a little bit in me and were happy to invest in me, and give me an opportunity to stay involved in basketball.
“That’s what I’m trying to foster here is that culture where everyone has a role and a job to do. That’s what you are most proud of when you look around.
“Our under-20s are hopefully going to compete for a championship, Doug Gates and our Division 1 boys won the championship and now these guys are again competing for a championship. That’s the depth of strength in our program and I’m very proud of that.”
Preparation has gone about as perfectly as to what the Wolves planned out in October last year heading into this Saturday night’s Grand Final, but Ettridge is fully aware that doesn’t guarantee a championship.
“Back in 2015 we came out and shot the lights out which really put Bunbury on the back foot and then in 2016, we probably got the game plan a little wrong with how we guarded Najee Lane and Rhett Della,” Ettridge said.
“Last year we walked into Shawn Redhage who was geared up and Lee Roberts so all power to them. But we know what we do works, we just had to add that little bit more firepower and rejig things defensively so we are defending as five a bit more.
“We are pretty confident that the formula works, but on the day you have to go out and perform. A lot of what we’ve done is about playing present and in the moment, and embracing what’s in front of you instead of focusing on last year, the year before that or even the ones you’ve won.
“It’s all about the now and being one game at a time. Saturday was the first time as a club we released information about the Grand Final, we didn’t mention it until we had qualified.
“We wanted to go out and beat Willetton, that was our focus, and then it was to go out and beat Stirling, and that’s where our focus has been and now it’s on the Grand Final and our opponent there.”
The Wolves have looked for areas to improve and grow and there’s no better example than Trian Iliadis. He remains an outstanding and lethal offensive threat, but his defence is at career-best levels right now highlighted by his effort on Stirling’s Justin King in the semi finals.
“That’s been the challenge for him all along because when you are that gifted as an offensive player, for him to take on that challenge is a different role. He is normally chasing point guards around and this year he’s been chasing two guards, but there hasn’t been many that have got his number,” Ettridge said.
“You are going to struggle offensively every now and again, but week in, week out he’s shown us that he can defend at an elite level. Holding an MVP candidate like Justin King to 15 points in a do-or-die semi-final while scoring 20-odd points yourself is phenomenal. That’s 2015 MVP of a Grand Final Trian Iliadis right there.”