THE trademark fighting qualities of the Mandurah Magic was in full effect Saturday night as they bounced back to stun the Lakeside Lightning and coach Craig Watts will continue to strive to get the best out of an increasingly young and local group.
With the Magic coming off the pain of losing the past two Grand Finals in the Women’s SBL but also knowing they have been tantalisingly close to that first ever championship, it has been a rollercoaster ride to start Watts’ first season in charge as coach having taken over from Randy Miegel.
Never was the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the magic team of 2019 more evident than last weekend where they were blown away early on Friday night against Rockingham.
The Flames led 21-2 early with the Magic struggling to cope with their physical approach and Rockingham went on to win by 14 points.
The challenge was then ahead of Mandurah upon returning home on Saturday night against the defending champion and league-leading Lakeside Lightning.
But what the Magic produced was a remarkable performance, by far their best of the season, and they came away with an emphatic 71-42 victory against a team that had only lost three games in total over the past season and-a-half.
After half a season of challenges with import centre Ginka Palusna coming and going, new import Delany Junkermeir trying to find her feet and Carly Boag settling back from a knee reconstruction, Saturday night showed exactly what the Magic are still capable of.
Now with eight games of the season to go, they hold a 7-7 record and Watts is confident that his coaching and his team will only continue to grow together the longer the campaign rolls on.
“There’s always challenges as a coach whether you are sitting there as an assistant or you’re the head coach I think,” Watts said.
“I’m learning a lot of new stuff myself as well and stepping up into this role having had state coaching positions before is definitely a little bit different in terms of scouting sides, trying to change stuff up and staying positive with the girls.
“You have to keep their spirits up week in, week out so there’s definitely a lot of challenges but the bonus for me is that there’s a lot of support there. Past coaches are happy to give me feedback and I’m happy to receive that as well so that’s been a real positive for me.
“There are definitely other mentors that I’ve got as well outside of the club itself and they’re the people that you go and get feedback from to try to improve yourself as a coach. I definitely challenge myself each week to make improvements and pass that on to the side.”
What Watts is most excited about in regards of the Magic team moving forward is that they are developing their own players and more and more opportunities are continuing to open up for those players who have put in the work, and been willing to wait for a chance to open up.
Whether that means working hard by playing well at Division 1 level or by making the most of their SBL minutes, the likes of Rachel Pettit, Kasey Miegel, Jemma Gatti, Ash Sidebottom and Ashlee Norman are among the next generation of Magic players suggesting a strong future.
While impact from an import like Junkermeir and a recruit like Boag will always be icing on the cake, that strong group of locals coming through to eventually replace remarkable stalwarts like Casey Mihovilovich, Rachel Halleen, Bree Klasztorny and Emma Klasztorny is why Watts sees a bright future.
“I think we’ve got a good program in place and the D-League side and even below that has some good juniors coming through. The big thing for us is that all our players and you take Carly and Delany out of it, and the rest of our players in our SBL side are all local,” he said.
“From a club’s standpoint that’s massive for us and that’s something that we pride ourselves on to have all our players from the local area. That’s something that we will continue to drive forward.
“Getting minutes at SBL level into some of those younger girls is really crucial and it will help foster and develop them further into even bigger roles down the track. Rachell Pettit is a prime example.
“She has sat on the sidelines for a fair while but now she’s getting the opportunity to play big minutes and is standing up for us. That’s a good example of what can happen when you develop your own players.”
What Casey Mihovilovich continues to produce for the Magic at 37 years of age and with 480 SBL appearances under her belt is remarkable.
A couple of weeks ago she pulled a win out of the fire for the Magic virtually single-handedly against the Cockburn Cougars and even on Friday night in Rockingham she did all she could to try and will her team back into the contest.
She is still putting up outstanding numbers of 13.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists a game this season and Watts sees no reason why she can’t play on again in 2020 which would mean she would likely reach 500 games and be a chance to surpass Suzie Williams’ 512-game Women’s SBL record.
“She is an amazing athlete and I guess if there is any young juniors out there, they just need to come down and have a good look at what she does to prepare herself for an SBL season, as well as to play every game,” Watts said.
“In terms of her diet, fitness, physios and being down at the court shooting, she definitely knows what it takes to get through a season at such a high level, which is why she’s still going today and is still one of the best guards in this league.
“It’s a credit to her and you look at the numbers she’s putting in now, she could easily go around again for another year I would say.
“She is just such a true leader and in that Cockburn game, we set up a few different things for her but really it’s about her knowing how to knuckle down and grind it out. Then even against Rockingham, she had two points to quarter-time and finished with 17, she has that never-say-die attitude.”
The reality is that how well any team performs any SBL season will largely be dictated to by how the imports perform.
Nici Gilday and Anita Brown have played big parts in Mandurah reaching Grand Finals the past two years with Ginka Palusna crucial in 2018 as well providing her size inside and an ability to stretch the floor.
But so far in 2019, Watts hasn’t quite got the same production from his imports with Palusna coming and going playing just seven games.
Meanwhile, Junkermeir has had her moments in her first season out of college but two scoreless games recently against Cockburn and Rockingham did raise some concerns.
But she got going a little with 12 points against Lakeside and Watts will continue to back her in the rest of 2019.
“It is a tough gig being an import and they do make a massive difference to your success or otherwise. We only have one now obviously and Carly is coming back off that knee as well so she’s still trying to find her feet,” he said.
“We are doing what we can to try and get Delany knocking her shots down, that’s why we brought her over here. She has definitely struggled the last couple of weeks but we’ll keep persisting and see where that gets us. For me, it’s about providing her with support and just tell her to keep working.
“At the end of the day, it’s about getting down to the court to get extra shots up and working on your fitness levels. All those things play a part and realistically with her just being out of college, it’s a whole new style of ball over here.
“She is trying to adjust to that and maybe a month ago we thought she’d started to turn a little bit, but unfortunately the last couple of weeks have been a bit of a struggle.
“Those two games were also really physical which probably took a bit of a toll there for her. But she’ll continue to work on improving and that’s what it’s about – as athletes they need to continue to look at improving themselves all the time.”
For this Mandurah team with their playoff experience, where they finish in the top eight isn’t overly important as long as they are somewhere in the top eight.
The Magic showed that last year coming from seventh to beat the Flames and Redbacks, both in two games, in the first two rounds of the playoffs to reach the Grand Final and then dominate Lakeside most of the way there until conceding the game’s last 21 points.
So Watts is just hoping that the Magic are peaking come playoff time and that they are in the mix.
“Last year went into the playoffs at 11-11 and got on a roll, and the aim obviously is to make the finals again,” Watts said.
“That’s the first priority and once you’re into that finals series, as we’ve proven anything is possible. We just have to get ourselves on a bit of a roll and once the girls get going, as we’ve shown before over the last few years we can continue that through.
“We just have to find that spark and go from there. We have a tough double-header this weekend against Bunbury and Wolves, but they are games that we need to start putting in the bank if we want to play finals.”