THE Kalamunda Eastern Suns are an emerging club and the 2019 Men’s team could well now be playing the best basketball in their history with a strong leader at the helm with Jono Diaz cementing his legacy about to become the first Sun to reach 200 SBL games.
To be captain of a team with a talented and deep squad now on a four-game winning run as they march towards the playoffs, and about to become the first Kalamunda Men’s player to 200 SBL games and Diaz is creating a legacy at the Eastern Suns having made his debut in 2012.
But before that, Diaz came right through the junior ranks at the Suns in his teenage years and in a club still building its history, he is without question the heart and soul of the Men’s program at Kalamunda.
Diaz fits comfortably as the Suns version of a Seb Salinas at the Wolfpack, Joel Wagner at the Redbacks, Ben Purser at the Hawks, Gavin Field at the Cougars, Matt Wundenberg and Aaron Ralph at the Buccs or Jarrad Prue at the Lightning.
It’s not a stretch for Diaz to be his club’s equivalent of those outstanding servants as he now becomes the first Eastern Suns player to reach 200 games in the SBL and to do it on the verge of them reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Not only are the Suns within striking distance of just a third playoff appearance in the club’s Men’s SBL history, but they appear a genuine chance of doing some damage should they make it with the form they are currently in and the talent squad they have available under the tutelage of a good coach.
They have a good captain too. Diaz might not put up the big numbers of teammates Josh Braun, Javion Blake, Louis Timms or even Ryan Blanchett, but he is the grounding influence and influential leader that a group full of untapped potential needs.
Now Diaz will celebrate his 200th game in the SBL this Friday night with the Suns host the Cockburn Cougars at Ray Owen Sports Centre as they attempt to make it five successive wins to take another step towards the playoffs in their last home game of the 2019 regular season.
Going back to his 2012 season as a rookie and the Suns did make the finals, but it’s been a long journey back to even being in playoff contention since then.
Until Michael Clarke took over as coach in 2016, from 2013-2015 the going was tough too with wins rare and respect as a competitive outfit hard to find for the Eastern Suns.
But that gradually changed over the past three years with Clarke as coach as they improved each season before narrowly missing the playoffs in 2018.
Mark Utley then arrived as coach for 2019 and now with a group that includes star imports Josh Braun and Javion Blake, supremely talented big man Louis Timms and then the likes of Ryan Blanchett, Logan Viskovich, Carl Aylett, Corey Easley and Cooper Lowe, and it’s an impressive group.
Their form is now matching their talent too and Diaz has no doubt this current team has the most potential of any group he has been part of in his time with the Eastern Suns.
“In my first year, I thought we were pretty good and experienced but I was really young in that team so I was just along for the ride. But this is the first time I’ve been really part of a group who thinks we are building on something pretty special this season,” Diaz said.
“One of our team goals is obviously to play finals and one my goals since getting into SBL is making that step to get into finals and wanting to be a part of that rotation.
“We did get in during my first season, but since then it’s been a hard slog to even string many wins together and to be sitting a .500 record now is a big thing for us to put us in the mix.
“The thing for us is to just try and keep going the way we are going and keep improving, because we wouldn’t want to stop just because we get to finals. It would be incredible to get to finals but I really want to see us continue to develop and see how far we can take it.”
Diaz will now create his slice of history that will last forever as the first Eastern Suns men’s player to bring up 200 games with the club.
While he is focused on the team, the fact that such a milestone helps to highlight the growing history the club is now building means it’s a significant occasion for him.
“It obviously does mean something to me but it’s tough to answer because as a player you are so focused on helping the team, and not about yourself,” he said.
“It’s tough to put into words what it means but in future years once I finish playing I might look back on it a bit more, but I’m just happy to be playing and contributing at this level still.
“What is pretty special is knowing that we are still considered a young club so we are creating our own history now. We’ve had a massive turnover of players since it started so to have that consistency of sticking around to play 200 games for the club is pretty special.
“That is probably the best part of it knowing that you feel like we are building something as a club so to be part of that is a pretty good feeling.”
As special of a milestone as reaching 200 games is for Diaz with the Suns, having the faith and trust of his teammates to remain captain means even more to him.
“Getting voted in as captain a couple of years ago and knowing the team has my back to continue in that role means a lot to me,” Diaz said.
“I’m not the type of captain that says much, I just try to lead by example and everyone seems to fall in place with what I’m doing.
“It is pretty special to be captain and it’s hard to know what the right words are, but I do appreciate all the support I get from the boys and I hope that I can continue on helping them out the best I can in that role.”
After he was part of a strong team in 2012 with the Eastern Suns, the wheels seemed to fall off over the next three years and any time the men’s team seemed to be heading in a positive direction, personnel in terms of players and coaches continued to change and any momentum was lost.
It was a period of stop-start and it did lose direction, but the arrival of Clarke as coach in 2016 began to change the tide.
Knowing his squad might not have been able to match the powerhouse clubs in terms of talent and experience right away, he instituted a unique game style to enable them to compete and over the next three years he built up the core group to be able to adjust the way they play, and be set up for future success.
Clarke might not be at the helm in 2019, but Utley has built on what he had created rather than come in and started from scratch which Diaz believes is the key to the group now starting to really click.
“I think that was the turning point. He inherited a pretty inexperienced team and the most inexperienced team that we’ve ever had. He obviously brought in a game style that was quite different but we really needed that at that time,” Diaz said.
“And every year since, we have improved and I do see that as the turning point because he provided that stability and consistency of the one coach and philosophy for three years.
“All the years before that we’d start the season and then change coaches and have to start all over again. But for Clarkey to have those three years, it’s really helped and now having an experienced coach like Mark coming in has been able to extend that work rather than us starting from scratch.”
All season long it has appeared an Eastern Suns group capable of plenty in 2019, but for some reason until this current winning streak the wins just hadn’t been coming on a regular basis.
But Diaz always had faith that things would click before long and now there is a tremendous feeling in the group especially to know they have been winning without key players Timms and Viskovich who are set to return soon.
“Everyone is pretty upbeat with the way we are playing at the moment and we’ve been doing it with a few guys out as well, which adds to how impressive it’s been that we’ve been able to tick over some wins,” he said.
“Having Jav in and a bit more consistency with him as our point guard has been really helping obviously, but we have other young guys coming through who are putting in big minutes too and really working hard. Across the board we have a lot of things that are working for us which is awesome.
“I guess the thing is that we probably have five guys in our squad who can put up 20 points quite comfortably and that’s without Louis and Logan. We have the firepower, it’s just about moving the ball properly and finding the right options at the time.
“The guys that we have are really unselfish and give us that ability and when we get guys like Louis and Logan back it only adds to how dangerous we are.”
Following Friday night’s clash at home to the Cougars, the Suns finish the season against top four teams Rockingham, Lakeside and Joondalup.
While that’s a tough run to ensure they make the playoffs, what it will also serve to be is ideal preparation should they make it.
Diaz is looking forward to finding out how the Suns stack up over the coming weeks.
“It’s a really hard run but if we get to finals, we’ll be playing one of those teams so why not play them early and test yourselves against them,” he said.
“If we can’t beat them over those last three games, then we might not be able to during finals so we’ll be looking to have a real crack at them. We’ll be throwing everything at them and then we’ll learn a lot about if we’re up to taking it up to that competition or not.”
As for the club as a whole now that Diaz is on the verge of creating his slice of history, it’s basically like a second home to him and it means the world to him with the familiar faces something that makes Ray Owen Sports Centre a place he always loves walking into.
“There have been a lot of common faces still at the club that have been here since I started and that was in under-13s. There really is that small community type feel about the club and everyone gets behind each other,” Diaz said.
“There’s not that many new faces pop up because all the old faces stick around and you all get to know each other quite well. I’ve just grown up with everyone there at the club and in the committee and it’s a great place to be.”