COURTNEY Byrnes returned to Lakeside in 2018 and is now proud of her team and coach Craig Mansfield to reach the Grand Final but the journey to get there and lose just once the whole way through has already made it a year she’ll always treasure.
Byrnes took a year away from the Lightning in 2017 where she moved to Melbourne firstly playing in the SEABL with Frankston before finishing up at Southern Peninsula in the Big V, but when she moved home it was always going to coincide with a return to play with the Lightning.
Byrnes had been part of the Lakeside Grand Final team back in 2014 and always felt that could be a possibility again with the team she was returning to that had pushed the Mandurah Magic to three games in the semi finals last year.
With Ali Schwagmeyer, Sydnee Fipps, Ash Grant, Sam Roscoe and Jess van Schie all part of that core group back again too, Byrnes felt good about what could eventuate this season but never dreamt of losing once all the way to qualify for Friday’s Grand Final against the Magic at Bendat Basketball Centre.
Given her 2017 in a basketball sense didn’t quite pan out how she hoped, Byrnes wasn’t sure what to expect personally returning to Lakeside in 2018.
But she has settled right back into being a valuable member of the team which couldn’t have panned out any better for the group.
“There’s always that uncertainty when you come back and I had a pretty up and down season last year and changed clubs too so I didn’t get a lot of game time,” Byrnes said.
“I did a lot of running in the off-season so as far as training went I was grateful enough to be coached well at a great club at Southern Peninsula by Gerard Hillier. That was encouraging but I hadn’t played much so I was coming into the season just hoping to fit in and do my best.
“I knew that we would be deep and that throughout the last few years we’ve always had solid coaches as far back as I can remember with Andy (Stewart), Darren Nash and now Craig.
“So all the coaching that the juniors have received has been to prepare them SBL and after the team was so close last year, I thought we would go well with pretty much the same team coming back.
“That was based on people being uninjured and available so to be able to go as far as we did with only having one loss is something that I will always remember and be proud of and grateful for.”
Having such a dominant regular season does create some pressure, though, and Byrnes is feeling a bit more relaxed now knowing they have backed up their regular season form to be preparing for a Grand Final.
“I’m almost feeling my most relaxed now knowing that we’re in the Grand Final because we did have that expectations after finishing on top,” she said.
“So there was that pressure on us coming into the finals but now that we are into the Grand Final, I feel a bit more relaxed because even though we felt we were good enough to make it, you never quite know that for sure until you actually make it.
“Credit to both Hawks and Suns for giving us super competitive games so far in the finals and we feel ready now for the Grand Final as a result of those. We’re actually thankful now that they were such competitive opponents to play against and they were two well-coached teams.”
It has been a fascinating journey for the Lightning women in recent years going back to a Grand Final year in 2014, one-win season in 2015 and then returning to the playoffs in 2016 in the first season with Craig Mansfield as coach.
Byrnes then wasn’t there last year, but the Lightning improved further to finish the regular season third and then push the Magic to three games in the semi finals before losing the decider to miss out on a Grand Final berth.
But now that has grown into a one-loss season on the way to the 2018 Grand Final and Byrnes feels that this group under Mansfield has earned this chance to win the club’s first championship in the Women’s SBL since 2006.
“In that first year with Craig as coach, we were coming off that season where we didn’t really win at all and the biggest challenge was learning a whole new system. Craig ran pretty much everything opposite to what Darren did even though they had the same philosophy,” Byrnes said.
“So that first year was about learning to play a totally different style of game and learning to be coached differently.
“That was a big adjustment in itself learning different systems and then come the second and third year in, you are aware of what your coach wants from you and the verbals and sayings.
“For us it was all about building and we set a foundation in year one, built on that in year two and now this year is a reflection of the coaching staff and the time they’ve put in to get us this far.”
For Byrnes, this attempt at a championship continues a long journey at Lakeside and a lot of that has been shared alongside Jess van Schie and Ash Grant.
Van Schie was there for the 2006 championship and the trio did play in the Grand Final loss to Rockingham in 2014, and Byrnes would love nothing more than to become championship teammates with the pair.
“Jess isn’t getting much younger so it would be great if we could do it this year, but she’ll just keep playing forever. It would mean a lot to do it alongside her and Ash as well because I’ve been playing with them for so many years,” she said.
“They are such great people and friends that it would just be special if we were able to win it. But it’s been a special year already and the whole season has been the best part with the Grand Final now the icing on the cake. To do it with them, whether we win or lose, is what’s most important to me.”
Another fascinating aspect of Byrnes’ 2018 has been that she has become engaged and that just happens to be to her coach.
While it hasn’t always been totally smooth sailing, Byrnes has enjoyed going through the ups and downs of a basketball season alongside Mansfield, and the respect she has for him as a coach has gone to another level.
“It’s been really good and we’ve learned really well how to communicate when he’s coach and I’m player on the court, and then when we are off the court. I’m not going to lie, there are times where we have disagreements like any player or coach have but we’ve found a way to manage it really well,” Byrnes said.
“I respect his coaching and think he’s a phenomenal coach who could go so much further than SBL. The things he comes up with and the amount of time and effort he puts into it is just second to none. Being with him has been such a big eye-opener and appreciation for the amount of time and effort that he does put in.”
Byrnes hasn’t let herself spend too much time thinking about what it would be like to hold the trophy up alongside Mansfield on Friday night, she’s just excited about embracing everything that comes with being in a Grand Final.
“I haven’t given that a thought, I’m just so focused on everything leading up to that and I don’t want to look too far ahead. If we get it, that would just be an awesome achievement but this whole year has been so much more than holding up the trophy at the end of the Grand Final,” Byrnes said.
“I’m just excited and the nerves come up and down as the week goes on, but it’s more just excitement. We have such a great fan base and to see so many tickets sold already is great.
“I just want to have an awesome game to put on a great spectacle for the crowd, and just have fun. I’m just ready to go out and have fun with the girls, it’s just such an awesome group.”