WHILE the stadium redevelopment might have meant expectations were a little lower than usual for the Willetton Tigers in 2019, there was never an excuse to not win games for coach Simon Parker and now that they are well-placed for a top four finish he wants his group to take full advantage.
It was always going to be a fascinating season for the Tigers in 2019 with the Willetton Basketball Stadium redevelopment going on around them, and while it has created the odd challenge, you wouldn’t know it based on how the Tigers women have handled the situation.
But Parker didn’t quite know how his group would perform in 2019 and had plenty of unanswered questions coming into the season with an increasingly young group.
The Tigers have also had mixed fortunes with imports in recent years and while Parker knew from early on that Wendi Bibbins would be coming, the second import remained unknown they started the season with a loss to Cockburn.
What Parker and his coaching staff found was Laina Snyder who is now a genuine MVP candidate and with Emma Gandini and Desiree Kelley having career-best seasons, it’s helped Willetton currently in a strong position to finish in the top four with three rounds remaining.
Parker wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Willetton this season, but he was never going to make excuses to slide down the table.
Now that it hasn’t happened and as the run into the finals sees the Tigers take on the Magic, Slammers and Hawks, all in the playoff hunt, he wants his team to make the most of their good set up to head into the post-season with momentum.
“We just have to make sure we make the finals first and even though we talked about how this might have been a bit of a developing year because of the redevelopment of the stadium and everything, there’s still no excuses for losing games,” Parker said.
“Looking at this year and into the future, it’s pretty exciting for our club and for our girls, I hope they get something out of their basketball this year and they can continue on with it.
“We are probably ahead of where we thought we might have been this season, but we did a fair bit of work in the off-season as well which has helped our growth.
“But we are definitely in front this year where we might have expected to be and maybe ahead of where we should be, which is a good thing. But the thing is now that we are here, we have to continue with it and there’s no point going backwards.
“At the start of the year we would have been happy with top eight but now we’re looking at top four and will be disappointed if we miss out on that.”
While sitting on a 12-7 record is probably better than where Parker might have pictured the Tigers being situated coming into the season, it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a rollercoaster ride along the way.
The season started minus an import and Willetton losing its first two games to Cockburn and Lakeside before they won three straight, and ultimately 10 of 11 culminating in a brilliant win at home over the Joondalup Wolves.
That had the Tigers as the hottest team in the Women’s SBL but then suddenly 24 hours later they became the first team to lose to the East Perth Eagles in two years.
They’ve also lost to the Senators, Cougars for a second time and the Redbacks, but in between the great enigma that is Willetton of 2019 has included impressive wins against Rockingham and Joondalup.
Parker isn’t quite sure what’s behind his team’s up and down form and in particular why they seem to play well against the teams above them and not so well against those below them.
But whatever the issue, he hopes it’s now behind them as they prepare for this final three weeks of the regular season as they come up against three desperate, playoff bound teams.
“The most frustrating part has been the way we’ve played prior and how poorly we’ve then played in some games, it’s just two totally different teams and we never know which one is going to show up. We just have to figure it out,” Parker said.
“We seem to be struggling against those teams lower on the ladder but we seem to be able to play well against the top teams so I don’t know if it’s because they are more structured teams which helps us defend them or what it is.
“The worst part is that we finish the season against teams who are trying to guarantee a spot in the top eight so it’s going to be interesting to see how we handle that, and how we react when someone puts some pressure on us to test us.
“We used to be the pressure team but now we just have to see which way they go. We do still have a few weeks to go to get back to playing how we want to be, but we also don’t want to leave it too long either.”
Over the last two years since Parker coached the Tigers to the championship, they have had mixed success with their selection of imports but they have done a tremendous job in 2019.
Their first choice in Bibbins has been a solid contributor providing 10.8 points and 7.0 rebounds a game but with Snyder they have really struck gold.
The fact that she just happened to be available when Parker contacted her following the first game of the season has turned into a great stroke of luck for the Tigers too.
Snyder would have to be right up there in MVP voting for this season given the all-round game she has brought to the SBL where she is averaging 19.5 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists a game including delivering two 20-20 games.
Parker couldn’t be happier with the way her signing and production has panned out.
“Snyder was a really good find for us. After the Cockburn game, Cooky and I jumped on the internet because we didn’t have an import at that stage even though we already had Wendi who was coming out from Switzerland,” Parker said.
“We came across Laina and I texted her that night and she basically said she could come out straight away. I wasn’t sure how she was going to go but she has been a really good find for us.
“She is a good kid too, she’s very knowledgeable about the game and is really good with the girls. We couldn’t be happier with her.”
The other key to Willetton’s success so far this season has been Emma Gandini taking her game to another level as point guard along with Desiree Kelley stepping up too even further as captain in the three spot.
There’s also experience there with Taryn Priestly and some more youth with the likes of Sophie Maines, Emily Counsel and Hayley Winter, they have some good depth while also having welcomed back new mother and 250-game Zoe Harper who Parker is looking forward to getting more from.
“I think the way Emma is playing is the same way she has been playing the last four or five years, it’s just working better for her this year and she has a bigger role in the team,” he said.
“But if we have senior guys like her, Des and even Taryn who don’t fire and score for us any night, then we’ll always struggle. It’s their time now to be important players on the team and we’ll be confident they’ll be playing well come finals time.
“She can certainly still play and as we start heading towards the finals, she’ll start getting back into shape and she’ll be really important for us. Imogen (Ayliffe) was a big loss for us from the start of the season because when she was running up and down, she was doing great and no one could really handle her.
“We started phasing her out because we knew we were losing her but now we have to get Zoe and Sophie Maines up to the mark to pick up what we were getting from her earlier in the season.”
As for the on-going Willetton Basketball Stadium redevelopment that is going to provide the Tigers with such a brilliant new venue from 2020, Parker can’t be more impressed with how the club has ensured it hasn’t had an impact on his team.
“To be honest the club has done an absolutely amazing job with still running the domestic club, SBL and everything through that one little door,” Parker said.
“It hasn’t affected us at all and everything we’ve asked for the club has helped us with. They’ve done a mammoth job actually to make sure it hasn’t had any impact on us.”