THE Rockingham Flames always had high hopes in 2019 and while not everything went to script during the regular season, for rookie coach Keegan Crawford and his team, all that matters is that they are in the finals and ready to make the most of it.
For the first time in a decade there was a new coach with the Rockingham women with Ryan Petrik moving on to coach the Flames men and then Craig Reynolds lasted just 12 games into the role before he and the club parted ways.
The decision was then made to let 23-year-old Keegan Crawford to take over for the rest of the season who despite his age, had spent several seasons as assistant coach with the Flames so the familiarity and chemistry was already there between coach and player.
The response was immediate to Crawford taking over with a dominant home win over Mandurah but the challenges have continued.
There has been the addition of Alex Ciabattoni to the group while Christina Boag, Paris Duffield, Ariana Hetherington, Ella Kennedy, Tayah Burrows, Chelsea Petrik and Darcee Garbin have all missed at least one game since he’s been in charge.
While the team assembled from the start of the season might have looked capable of a higher finish than seventh, all that matters now that the Flames have given themselves a chance and they enter the finals in strong form having won four straight matches.
The last three wins have come against playoff teams as well and overall they have won seven of the 10 games that Crawford has coached them in heading into the quarter finals with the Magic.
Game 1 is in Mandurah this Saturday night and after the Magic eliminated the Flames as the lower seed last year, home court advantage matters little in the battle of the local rivals.
But for Crawford, he’s now excited to be getting ready for his first playoff campaign as a head coach.
“This is why you play, this is the funnest time of the year and it’s where the game slows down a little bit and you really get to see what talent can do,” Crawford said.
“Coaches can do a little bit and we put girls in positions to be successful, but this is really where you get to sit and watch, and look at it all grow and unfold.”
What Crawford has notice pick up significantly over the past couple of months with the Flames is that the chemistry of the group has picked up and in turn they are enjoying being on the court together more both during the week and then on weekends.
The fact that they are building their momentum as a group too the more they play together is helping as well and heading into the finals, Crawford has little complaints with how they are shaping up.
“To be honest a lot of it is about trying to find enjoyment with what we do. Practice is very serious and we get after it, but the girls are finding fun in getting up and down the floor, and playing a style that we enjoy at the same time,” he said.
“We obviously do a tonne of film and individual stuff so the girls being locked in knowing their role and the team’s role as a whole is really helping us.
“It was always going to take a little bit of time and it’s not so much about the coaching change, but it’s about the personnel. Getting Ciabba halfway through, having Darcee coming in and out, then Tayah Burrows getting hurt and now coming back.
“Any coaching change also takes a little while to adjust to, but credit to the girls – it’s not us coaches. It’s the players who are doing a fantastic job of playing together.”
The frontcourt featuring Darcee Garbin, Maddie Allen and Christina Boag always looked capable of being Rockingham’s great strength in 2019, but now as it’s turned out the backcourt is just as well stocked up.
Now with the addition of Alex Ciabattoni along with Tayah Burrows getting back healthy to play alongside Chelsea Petrik and Janelle Adams, and Crawford couldn’t be happier with the way that area has come together.
“We really love the depth that we have in that backcourt and Tayah is a huge part of what we do and she’s only 17 years old. When she’s on the floor, some of the passes she can make are fantastic and her ability for us is way more than just what she puts on the stat sheet,” he said.
“It’s about how she gets everyone else on the floor that’s so important and she’s still not quite at 100 per cent so we are looking forward to her getting to top form that we know she can play at.”
Captain Ella Kennedy also returned last weekend in her first game since celebrating her 200th game in the win at home over the Lady Wolfpack on June 21.
She had continued to be a vocal leader while not playing but Crawford is glad to have her now back on the floor and wouldn’t want to go into the finals with anyone else as his team’s captain.
“Ella joked to me that she didn’t want her 200th game to be the very last game of her career so she was pushing us to make sure we made finals so that wasn’t the case,” Crawford said.
“But she is a huge on-court presence to what we do but to be honest stepping into the captain’s role this year, she is way bigger than just that with how she communicates with the girls.
“When she was out, we talked about how our loudest player can’t be Ella Kennedy in a cast but she communicates almost too much sometimes, but she’s fantastic as a leader and talker regardless of if she’s playing or not.”