HAVING been at Willetton since she was six, Ella Kennedy never thought there was a future elsewhere but she eventually bit the bullet and landed at the Rockingham Flames and she continues to be forever grateful she did as she now celebrates 200 games in the SBL.
For someone who started playing her basketball at Willetton aged six, went to Willetton Senior High School as part of their renowned basketball program and then played her first SBL game with the Tigers aged 16 in 2009, it’s remarkable to think she doesn’t feel her career really started until she left.
While Kennedy did end up making 113 appearances on the court for Willetton in the SBL up until the end of 2015 and she was part of teams where they won championships in 2009 and 2011, playing 12 games in 2009 and 25 in 2011, she never felt a genuine part of the team.
That’s understandable given she was a developing player on a star-studded team, but Kennedy knew nothing outside of playing basketball at Willetton so never seriously considered playing elsewhere until the coach that just beat the Tigers in the 2015 Grand Final gave her a call.
Ryan Petrik’s Rockingham Flames beat Willetton for that season’s championship and then Kennedy was perhaps ready to give up playing in the SBL and move on, at least until Petrik got in touch and said he saw a role for her with the Flames.
That was all Kennedy needed to hear and she jumped at the chance to sign with a Rockingham team coming off back-to-back championships .
Now three and-a-half years later, she has never looked back and has had the best 86 games of her career to date. In those games with Rockingham, Kennedy has averaged 4.4 points and 4.5 rebounds a game, but her contributions have been even more significant than the numbers suggest.
Kennedy, now aged 26, is in the prime of her career and will celebrate 200 SBL games on Friday night with the Flames hosting the Joondalup Wolves at Mike Barnett Sports Complex.
It gives her a chance to reflect on the journey so far and without question, her highlight is making the decision to come to Rockingham even if Willetton did win the 2016 championship.
“It definitely puts into reality the amount of time you’ve given to the game. I sort of didn’t really realise what a big deal it was until so many people have been telling me what a great achievement it is and saying well done to me,” Kennedy said.
“That’s been making me think about it a lot more and I have realised how rare it is for people to stick with their sport for so long to get to the 200-game mark. I’m just proud of myself to get there really.
“For me my highlight was my first year playing for Rockingham and just how happy with that move I’ve been from the moment I did it.
“I moved from a team that I wasn’t really getting a huge amount of court time with to the team that had literally just beat us in the Grand Final the year before and becoming in their starting five and playing 30 minutes a game.
“To me that’s a huge milestone in my career and it was where I really felt like I became a fully-fledged SBL player. So my first year at Rocko will always be my highlight because of that.”
Looking back, Kennedy wishes she had considered moving from Willetton earlier. Not because she has hard feelings towards the Tigers, but she understands why she didn’t get many minutes there and feels she might have been able to do that earlier than what happened at the Flames in 2016.
“It’s a move I wish I had made earlier to be honest. I definitely feel like I am now actually playing whereas before I’d get a couple of minutes here and there, and I didn’t really take it seriously because I didn’t feel an important player on the team,” she said.
“But when I moved to Rockingham, I realised that it wasn’t the case so I started working a lot harder and my numbers and everything have probably all gone up because I’ve taken it a lot more seriously given I felt a more important part of the team.”
Even if Kennedy does upon reflection feel like she could have looked to move on from Willetton earlier, in reality it never crossed her mind and that had always been her basketball home so she never really considered it.
“That’s just where I always played and I didn’t know any different. I started playing there at the age of six and I just didn’t know anything else or really ever think about any other options of playing elsewhere,” Kennedy said.
“Growing up I did always play a huge amount and I was always a big part of the teams I was on so through my junior years I never felt the need to think of any other options.
“But by the time I sort of started playing SBL, I just felt like this was my club and I didn’t want to leave even if I didn’t really feel that important to the team. I do feel like I missed out a bit by staying and they had such a talented team where there was just no way I could push ahead of anyone.
“I think if went somewhere else earlier I probably would have enjoyed it much more purely because I might have got to play, but at the same time I learned a lot off playing with those talented and experienced players.”
While Kennedy was receptive to everything Petrik said when he contacted her about joining Rockingham in the off-season leading into 2016, she recognises had he not made contact first she might have never found her way to the Flames or anywhere else.
“Ryan definitely was a huge factor. He approached me and in my mind I wasn’t even thinking about moving and wasn’t even sure if I was going to continue playing, I was pretty adamant about stopping playing at that point,” Kennedy said.
“But then Ryan approached me and his confidence in me was one of the biggest things that made me think I could actually play in this league if he could see something none of my previous coaches could.
“So that was a big plus for me and then just his honesty made it clear where he saw me playing and how much he saw me playing, and he stuck to his word. I felt like I could trust him because he was so upfront with me and it was pretty much just him that got me to make the move.”
Speaking of coaches, Kennedy had a terrific time playing under Petrik the past three seasons and now is already pumped to have 23-year-old Keegan Crawford in charge for the rest of 2019.
With Crawford having already been an assistant to Petrik, the bond is there with the playing group and even beyond this season, Kennedy would back the young man to be given the job and that would make her more likely to play on should it happen.
“Not only would I 100 per cent support Keegan getting the job for next year, I don’t know if I would play on again next year if he’s not the coach. I don’t know what I’ll be doing next year yet, but if Keegan’s coaching it will be very hard for me to stop playing that’s for sure,” she said.
“Everyone has a huge amount of respect for Keegan. He has obviously been part of the program for a long time so everyone already knew him and had that connection with him.
“And although he is 23, if you had a conversation with him especially about basketball, you would be blown away to think he was 23. The amount of knowledge he has and the time he puts into it is amazing. He pretty much lives and breathes basketball, like that’s all he does.
“His scout reports and film is the most information I’ve ever received from a coach. I don’t think his age impacts his coaching in any way. I think he learned a lot off Ryan too and they are similar in a lot of ways.”
It has been a rollercoaster season so far for the Flames including undergoing the coaching change and then injury to Tayah Burrows leading to the signing of Alex Ciabattoni.
But now with a backcourt including Ciabattoni, Janelle Adams and Chelsea Petrik, and the frontcourt that Kennedy’s part of alongside Darcee Garbin, Maddie Allen and Christina Boag, she sees no reason why the Flames can’t have a big say in 2019 from here.
“Now we’ve also Alex Ciabattoni so having that amount of experience in our team makes our training go up that next level,” Kennedy said.
“It’s just little things that they bring so much like adding things to our warmup that might give us an edge to start our games better and things like that they’ve learned from wherever they’ve been.
“It makes such a big difference having such experienced players to pass on what they can. They always back up what they say as well so it makes it easier to learn from us and for us to follow their lead.
“I think the Mandurah game opened everyone’s eyes a little bit and made us realise how diverse we are. Not only do we have such a talented starting five, but we have such a strong bench as well.
“So even when we play those teams that run us off our legs, we know that when we put our bench on, we don’t lose anything. I think that’s a huge advantage for us going forward into the rest of the season. I’m really excited to see what happens and hopefully we can get that championship.”
Even though Kennedy is no stranger to championships in the SBL given she was around winning teams at Willetton, she has no doubt it would mean that much more to her should she be able to achieve that ultimate dream with Rockingham.
“Technically I did play in three championships at Willetton but now it would mean so much more if we were able to win one because at Rockingham I feel actually a proper part of the team with the court time and everything I’m getting,” Kennedy said.
“I would feel like I’ve actually contributed to the championship and that would be amazing. I could be getting to the stage where I’m not sure how many more season I’ll get out of myself so it would be amazing to be able to get that championship, especially to bring it back to the club.
“The effort the club has put in to growing our program has been massive and the change has been amazing the last couple of years. I would be really proud to bring a championship home for Rockingham and our club.
“The growth in the club has been amazing to see. It’s just fantastic to be part of and they give you so much and want to do everything they can to make you enjoy your basketball. I could not imagine playing anywhere else.”