BACKING up a championship-winning season on the back of losing three stars might appear a significant challenge but for Lakeside Lightning coach Craig Mansfield, he’s not afraid to set the ceiling as high or potentially higher than it was in 2018.
Having built steadily in his first two years in charge of the Lightning taking over after they had won just one game in 2015, Mansfield took Lakeside back to the playoffs in 2016 before they lost to the eventual champion Willetton Tigers in the first round.
A year later and not only did they reach the playoffs from third position, but they got to Game 3 of the semi finals against the Mandurah Magic, only losing that on the road in a dramatic three-game series.
They then built further into being the standout team in 2018 losing just one game in the regular season and cruising to the Grand Final before it took the most remarkable of comebacks in the decider for them to secure the championship over the Magic.
Since then, the Lightning have lost Ali Schwagmeyer, Sydnee Fipps and Sam Roscoe who you could make the case were their three best players the past two seasons, but it’s a challenge that Mansfield is well and truly up for.
While those losses are significant, the Lightning will be bringing in two new imports with guard GeAnna Luaulu-Summers having already arrived while Ellyce Ironmonger strengthens the frontcourt alongside Ash Grant.
With the majority of the rest of his championship group back, Mansfield sees no reason why the Lightning can’t still aim high in 2019.
“Having been to a couple of Grand Finals unsuccessfully beforehand, for me there wasn’t a lot of lingering emotion,” Mansfield said.
“Wolves beat us in a Grand Final and the next year we played them there might have been a little bit of feeling in the first game, but after that life goes on and I expect it’s probably the same for everyone.
“At the end of the day, if people do put a target on you it’s a sign of either respect for what you’ve achieved previously or where they think you will go this year. If you get everyone’s A-game and best performance and when they have a full team then at least you can gauge exactly where you are and everything is on the table with nothing hidden.
“If that means that there’s more of a journey this year with a new team and the second import coming in late, so be it and I think our ceiling is as high or higher than last year. We just have to work on getting better each week and look where Mandurah came from, they finished sixth last year.
“There might be a target on our back, I can’t control what other people think and feel, we just have to handle ourselves the best we can all the time. There’s no point living in the past for us and I imagine it’s the same for everybody.”
There can’t be any hiding from the hole the absence of Schwagmeyer, Fipps and Roscoe does leave with Lakeside, but Mansfield always had a team with strong depth last year and now he will be able to call upon some of the local players even more in 2019.
But then the additions of Ironmonger along with the two imports he is more than content with the way his squad has come together for their championship defence.
“We’ve been really fortunate to firstly return most of the locals, the only exception is Sam and we’re really fortunate with Courtney, Jess, Ash and a host of others, and we’ve also got a very strong Division 1 squad,” Mansfield said.
“We’re hoping that two or three of them can make the big transition this year. Losing Sam is always tough and she was obviously a big contributor for us last year, but we were fortunate enough to pick up Ellyce Ironmonger who positionally is similar even though obviously they play in slightly different ways.
“That’s helped offset that and Lakeside accommodates us to get two imports. We’ve had to put a lot of work in the off-season and we’ve got two very different imports to what we had last year in terms of positions and how they play. One of them is Geanna who played at the Blitz and is looking good. The other one will come in around the middle of May.”
Thinking the team will be better than the one that lost only once in all of 2018 and had the MVP of the past three years in it would be a stretch, but Mansfield is looking forward to the changes that the new personnel will enable and for the Lightning to freshen things up in certain ways.
“Some of the change plays in our favour, whether it plays in our favour in our record and for finals who knows,” he said.
“But now going into my fourth year it’s really good to change dynamics a bit, evolve our offence, evolve our defence and continue to grow to try and stay ahead of everyone and to keep it fresh and interesting for the players to make sure they continue to grow and be stimulated mentally.
“If any sign of boredom creeps in you don’t get the kind of work rate and results you want.”
While Lakeside’s second import won’t arrive until closer to the mid-point of the season, Luaulu-Summers has already arrived, played at the Blitz and is ready to go in a combo guard role under Mansfield.
“GeAnna can play the one and the two, she doesn’t have the size that the imports last year had but her passing and shooting is top notch,” Mansfield said.
“That was one of the things with us last year, we moved the ball pretty well and led the league in assists but still had girls that were very aggressive to score and that worked in our favour, particularly in big moments.
“But I wanted to kind of evolve how we play and have people who could move the ball fluently and could play with and without the ball. That enables some of the Australians to grow as well and I think GeAnna will be a really good fit.
“She can play with it, she can play without it and she plays really fluently. Her decision-making is really solid and I think she’ll make a really good combination with the Australian girls and particularly starting with Courtney.”
Having a strong frontcourt centred around Roscoe and Grant has been a big part of Lakeside’s success the past two years. Mansfield is confident that can continue now in 2019 with the arrival of Ironmonger and when the second import comes to town.
“Ellyce brings interior defence and rebounding but also a passing hub. I think that was one of her traits that was underutilised or undervalued in the last couple of years because she has a great ability to give her the ball to move it and use her as a passer,” he said.
“It certainly helps us with her abilities and then the second import we’ve got coming in later in the season is a tall as well so that will give us a bit more flexibility than we even had last year to play tall and small.
“That will give us a bit more of a physical presence and I think there’s some merit to that if you look at us getting my Mandurah in the Grand Final without Boag and Hawks in the first round without Sarah Donovan.
“Mandurah is set to be big again, Wolves will be too and we need to be able to compete with them. But I don’t think it will lead to a big change in how we play. Whilst we’ve increased in size we haven’t lost a whole lot in mobility and shooting so hopefully that helps us be a better team defensively this year.”
Lakeside now turns its attention to the season-opener on Friday night which shapes as a big occasion with the raising of the championship banner and a first up Grand Final rematch with Mandurah at Lakeside Recreation Centre.
“In one sense it’s nice to get it out of the way but in some ways by Round 1 teams won’t have everyone available so in one way maybe it’s a bit of a shame because if it was played in Round 10 or 12 with everyone available it might have been different,” Mansfield said.
“I actually only thought about the banner the other day and I have no idea what the club’s going to do. I haven’t had a chance to talk to Steve about it but if it’s up it will be nice to look at for us to try and honour the achievement.
“Mandurah knows what they are about with some very experienced girls and the rivalry has developed nicely the last few years.
“They eliminated us in 2017 and then we had the win last year so I think between the two clubs now at least in the short-term now every game is going to be pretty hot and competitive between two teams at the top end.”