AFTER three years of building towards a championship and succeeding, Lakeside Lightning coach Craig Mansfield is looking forward to the challenge now in the second half of 2019 of trying to go back-to-back with a significantly different squad.
Mansfield took over as coach at the Lightning with the team having reached the Grand Final two years earlier, but in 2015 they won just the one game so it was a rebuild he had to usher it when he arrived for the 2016 season.
He put the building blocks in place when they reached the playoffs in 2016 where they lost to the powerful Willetton Tigers in the first round.
They improved further in 2017 to finish the regular season in third position and then push the Mandurah Magic to three games of the semi finals before losing the deciding Game 3 in Mandurah.
But they were on the brink of something special and it all came together in 2018. Lakeside lost just one game all the way through the season and playoffs before then having to dig deep to come from behind and score the Grand Final’s last 21 points to beat Mandurah to claim the championship.
After any championship there are always changes and now heading towards the back end of the season, it’s a decidedly different Lakeside team.
The main changes are the arrival of Hannah Stewart, Ellyce Ironmonger and GeAnna-Lualu Summers for Ali Schwagmeyer, Sydnee Fipps and Sam Roscoe, but what those three major changes have meant is a change in the makeup of the team.
It was a guard-dominated team the last two years with Schwagmeyer and Fipps the focal points with good help from bigs Grant and Roscoe who could play inside and outside.
Now all of a sudden without Fipps and Schwagmeyer, and three genuine bigs with Ironmonger and Stewart joining Grant in the front court, it’s a significantly bigger Lakeside team.
There are still the core players with Courtney Mansfield, Jess Van Schie, Tiahrn Flynn and company, but the new-look makeup of three starting bigs only came together for the first time less than a month ago against the Warwick Senators.
Mansfield always knew there would be some growing pains in the second half of the season, but he’s looking forward to how the new-look squad pulls together and doing so currently sitting in top spot at 12-3 is a nice position to be in.
“We basically started afresh in Week 11 so it’s basically a 15-week season for hopefully if you count the rest of the regular season and then five weeks of finals,” Mansfield said.
“We have that time to figure out how to make sure we are playing to our optimum by the end of the season and the beauty of having 12 teams with eight making the finals, means that we are well placed at the moment so we don’t need to take any shortcuts now to get to our eventual goal.
“That’s a credit to the program and the girls who did the work earlier in the season to put us in a good position. That enables us to do things the right way now because if we were 5-5 or 3-7 when we got our group together, then we might have had to think about doing things a bit differently.
“We’re just looking at it from a program point of view and the girls’ job is to listen and focus on competing and making the most of each training, and our job as coaches is to figure out how to make the thing all fit together.”
While the mix in the team is obviously different when you swap out two guards in Schwagmeyer and Fipps plus one big in Roscoe for the two bigs in Ironmonger and Stewart and one guard in Summers, Mansfield wants his team to still play in a different way.
They do become significantly bigger with Stewart, Grant and Ironmonger in the starting line-up, but he still thinks they can stick to their similar structure while just working out how to best now maximise their strengths.
“I don’t really want our shot distribution to change despite the makeup of our team looking a little different. I have been happy with our proportions of points at the rim, points from the three and points from the free-throw line, I don’t want that distribution to change,” he said.
“What changes is a lot of those open threes that were generated by rim pressure and created by Ali along with the screener diving. The question now is that without Ali, what are the other ways for us to for us to force the opposition to guard the keyway.
“If that’s working in some more post ups or being able to move things around to take care of some other advantages, then that’s what we’ll do more of.
“We’ve already seen that at times the opposition have had to have guards guarding one of our talls, and at the moment we’re still working on how we can best take advantage of those mismatches. We have a long way to go and we have to coach well to try and figure it out. It’s an exciting challenge though.”
The Lightning have only now welcomed back Courtney Mansfield too with the captain having been sidelined with a foot injury.
But the backcourt has run smoothly in her absence by the likes of Summers, Van Schie, Tiahrn and Jae Flynn, and even Amy and Claire Jacobs before they departed for college.
Mansfield liked the way the group was playing so now that his captain is back in the line-up, he wants her to slot right into what the team was already doing.
“Even when Courtney was out, the idea was not to change the rotation without her, we wanted to basically run the same patterns we would with her so that when she gets back she just joins in without us having to change things,” Mansfield said.
Tiahrn Flynn recently celebrated her 200th milestone in the SBL for the Lightning as well and Mansfield would love for all of his team to play with her heart.
“Probably Tiahrn’s greatest asset is that she just absolutely competes and gives her all at all times. She flies around and plays her arse off and does that whether it’s January 27 and it’s 38 degrees in the middle of pre-season, or halfway through the season when it’s really starting to count,” he said.
“I really admire that in her and she plays with all her heart all the time. When she reached her 200th game, the one thing I said to the girls was that the best thing we can do to honour her is for everyone to compete at her level. That’s the example she sets.”
What Mansfield is sure to remember 2019 for beyond anything that happens on the basketball court is his wedding to his partner and Lightning captain, Courtney.
She did have to battle through her sore foot during the wedding but he couldn’t even hardly tell.
“She did have her sore foot for the wedding but she only had a little heel for the ceremony and managed to get through that,” he said.
“Then for the rest of the day she wore some white, fluffy hotel slippers which you couldn’t see under the dress anyway.
“Dancing was a bit of a stretch for her and a few people stepped on her foot, and she was pretty sore by the end, but she’s a bit tougher than me and just put a smile on her face and got through.”
The couple got married back in mid-May with Mansfield missing Lakeside’s win over the East Perth Eagles while Courtney would have been sidelined injured anyway.
They were back in time to play the Warwick Senators on May 24 with the bye following that Eagles game, which provided them the chance to enjoy a honeymoon before coming back to reality and beginning life as a married couple.
“It would have been nice to keep the good times going and the honeymoon to last a little longer, and you do feel a little flat coming back to it but at the same time I was excited to get back to start this chapter of our married life together for real,” he said.
“For me, I’ve changed jobs as well now that I’ve got back too and there was a bit of sadness our honeymoon had to end because we would have loved to stay away for longer, but there’s exciting things to come back to as well.
“It was a bit tougher for Courtney because she got back and had to study for exams straight away and not being able to get back straight on the court was tough for her. But we’re looking forward to the next phase of our lives together.”
Given Lakeside now have that championship experience and currently sit on top of the table leading into another clash with the Senators this Saturday night at Lakeside Recreation Centre, there’s every chance a husband and wife could hoist the championship trophy come the end of the season.
That’s the last thing on Mansfield’s mind just yet though.
“It would be great if we were coach and captain, and now married and got to hold off that trophy at the end of the season. As awesome as it would be, it’s not why we are here just to do that,” Mansfield said.
“We were engaged last year when we got to hold it aloft and I would love to go back-to-back, but that doesn’t happen just by thinking about what it would feel like. We have to put the work in and there’s a lot of good teams that want to make sure we don’t do that, so it’s definitely not something we are thinking about.”