HE has had to bide his time for a chance to be a head coach in the SBL, but Craig Watts is glad to now be at the helm of the Mandurah Magic and keep the core group together while just tinkering a little as they shoot for a third straight Grand Final and to go one step better in 2019.
When you consider the Mandurah Magic have played in six of the past 16 Women’s SBL Grand Finals including the past two, then obviously they have been doing plenty of things right.
That’s why Watts has no interest in taking over as head coach in 2019 having been an assistant under Randy Miegel looking to make mass changes either in the game style or personnel.
Watts is glad that his playing group has remained relatively stable with the only major change being an import replacement for Anita Brown.
But the second import Regina Palusna will be back again and so will be the core group led by Casey Mihovilovich, Rachel Pettitt, Rachel Halleen, Kelly Bailey, Emma Klasztorny and Bree Klasztorny.
There will also be the boost by at the latest halfway through the season of Carly Boag’s return from a knee reconstruction.
So all of that is reason for Watts to feel good about the playing group he is taking over and with the natural drive that comes from losing the past two Grand Finals, and especially the way last year’s decider played out after they looked to have it won against the Lakeside Lightning.
The way the group is experienced and self-motivating is something that means that Watts never has to question their dedication and now heading towards the Blitz this weekend at Warwick Stadium, he’s feeling good about the Magic’s preparation.
“I wasn’t here for the whole start of the pre-season which did make it a little difficult to a certain degree and we didn’t start as early as other clubs did, but the bonus with that is that we’ve been able to let the girls have a decent break after two long campaigns of reaching Grand Finals,” Watts said.
“That’s probably allowed us to freshen them up a little bit and then we brought some juniors in to keep the development process going and we’ll continue to do that with a lot of our fringe and D-League players.
“That’s with an eye to them stepping in over the next couple of years when we lose a chunk of our older players. But as far as where we are sitting, they’ve been doing a lot of sessions themselves and that comes down to the maturity of the group.
“They have been doing F45 sessions at least two times a week and have been doing an extra session or two of shooting every week. They are definitely holding themselves accountable and I think that holds us in good stead to get the season started for sure.
“Then hopefully with a bit of a different playing style that I’ll bring into the group will help make a couple of tweaks and hopefully that’ll be the difference for us. I don’t plan on making a hell of a lot of changes and I don’t see why you would when you’ve made the last two Grand Finals.”
As far as dealing with the pain of losing last year’s Grand Final in particular, Watts doesn’t see any reason why he needs to bring that up or use it to try and give the group any added motivation.
Those involved will have the natural drive from it to try and go one better in 2019 and that’s something Watts sees as a great positive in terms of their experience, professionalism and how his senior core group sets the standard for the whole club.
“We haven’t gone back on it at all and probably won’t do either. The group themselves given a few of them have missed out on several occasions, they know what is required to get there and it’s just about trying to put that final piece in place to get the eventual championship,” Watts said.
“Last year was pretty devastating in the fact that we were so far in front and Lakeside on a massive run that we just couldn’t stop. I think from that there’s probably a little bit more burn there and with them getting a little bit older, they know their timing is coming too so there’s only so many more chances left.
“But as far as going back on it to use it as added motivation or anything like that, I don’t need to do that. They have that within themselves to get ready for another SBL season and I think that’s the benefit of having a more mature group.
“The other beauty of that they drive the younger ones too to understand what it takes to be successful. If you look at the women’s program over the last 10 or 12 years they have played in most of the Grand Finals but unfortunately just haven’t been able to get one yet. But hopefully we can turn that around this year, that’s the aim.”
While across the league there has been mass player movement both from those players swapping clubs and new faces arriving and familiar names moving on, but that’s not the case with the Magic.
Anita Brown and Morgan Ballantyne are two players to move on, but Mandurah has secured a replacement import who they are working out the final details with and Watts is happy with the group he’s going to start his head coaching stint with.
“There has been a fair bit of movement around the league but I suppose us having a group that hasn’t changed a hell of a lot I see as a real big positive,” Watts said.
“As far as getting them to try and gel and stuff, realistically that’s already there and they know how each other plays. It’s now just about trying to keeping it clicking and rolling forward while adding in a couple of new pieces.
“We have lost Morgan Ballantyne to Perry Lakes so losing a guard is probably not ideal and obviously Anita won’t be returning either. They are two reasonable people that we’ve lost within the group but the main core is there and they are there to do some work.”
A virtual new recruit for Mandurah will be Boag as well once she fully recovers from her ACL injury that ended her 2018 campaign early.
Then Palusna will arrive once her playoff campaign in Lebanon comes to an end so Watts is excited by what his full-strength squad will look like.
“We are not 100 per cent when Carly will be right and she definitely won’t be back for the start of the season, but we are sort of hoping by about a third of a way through the season. That is definitely like having a new recruit for sure,” he said.
“We’re not totally sure when she will get here, it just depends on how her finals campaign goes where she is at the moment.
“That started on the 25th so if she gets knocked out early that will be good for me and we’d definitely have her for Round 1. But if they happen to progress then we probably won’t see her until the second or third week.”
Watts has been involved in WA basketball for a long time now including several assistant coaching stints in the SBL.
He thought there might have been a couple of instances when he was ready to be a head coach, but things worked out how they did and now looking back, he is happy to now be taking over as coach of the Magic.
“I guess it’s just having the responsibility now of following on from two successful years realistically when we made Grand Finals. I guess there’s a bit of pressure there but it’s exciting as well getting to be the head figure,” Watts said.
“It’s a bit of a different role after being the assistant the last two years with Randy and then before that I spent time with Brook Ryan and Jason Kyle for a few years. Now to have that opportunity is really exciting.
“I have had a couple of looks at it previously and I did miss out the first time the job came up after spending three years with Brook. I put in for the job then but Jason Kyle came into town and got a go at it, and then when he stepped away I had another crack but that’s when Mark Utley was appointed.
“I thought I had done my time then and actually stepped away from SBL to coach the state country under-18 girls for five years before Randy asked me to come back in. That got the drive going again to want to have a go coaching SBL and that’s how it’s come about.
“I have been looking at being a head coach and had a crack at Perth last year as well which would have required a fair bit of travel, but they went with Nixy and understandably so.
“But I’ve been looking forward to being a head coach and we put something in place with Randy so I learned as much as I could from him which helped us to get the transition right with me stepping into the role.”
Now the fact that Watts is taking over as head coach for Mandurah with a group that he’s already established relationships with in his time as an assistant is something he feels can only be a great positive.
“Having that understanding of what makes the players tick and what doesn’t is definitely a big advantage. I just know that the group themselves has a lot of drive within themselves as a bit more of a mature group,” Watts said.
“I won’t say that makes it easier because they are head strong and have high expectations so it puts that little extra pressure on the head coach to do your job well, but having a bit of a different style of play and voice is something that’s important as well.
“Even though I have been around the club for a while, a voice from an assistant to the head coach is a little bit different.”