EVERYTHING that could go wrong in last year’s semi finals certainly did for the Kalamunda Eastern Suns but they look in much better shape this time around with coach Tom Knowles looking forward to another crack at the Lakeside Lightning.
Kalamunda did a tremendous job last year to reach the semi finals after beating the Willetton Tigers in the quarter finals, but they were never given a real shot against a dominant Lakeside team in the semi finals.
With Jewel Williams and Alex Ciabattoni unavailable for Game 1 and then Jennie Rintala going down with an ankle injury, the Eastern Suns were blown away by 51 points and while they fought hard in Game 2 at home, the Lightning proved too strong and went on to win the championship.
It’s been a bit of a grind for the Eastern Suns to just get back to the playoffs and their position wasn’t confirmed until last weekend when the Perth Redbacks fell from contention and the Suns ended up finishing eighth at 11-11.
But their form entering the playoffs is better than that record suggests and since welcoming new import Katie Yohn and being closer to full strength, the Eastern Suns have built some good momentum in the back of the season.
They have won eight of their last 11 games now to be a dangerous threat for the defending champion Lightning who have again secured top position.
But this does look like a Kalamunda team capable of providing more of a threat to Lakeside with Jennie Rintala and Katie Yohn quality imports, Lauren Jeffers an experienced championship-winning point guard and Rebecca Motroni, Jewel Williams, Georgia Adams and Hannah King more than handy.
Going into the final round of the regular season, it did look as though the Suns would have to beat the Lady Wolfpack at HBF Arena to reach the playoffs, but once the Redbacks lost to the Cockburn Cougars on the Friday night that was no longer the case.
Despite that, Kalamunda still managed to play well and beat Joondalup to build some momentum now to take into the finals.
While coach Tom Knowles felt a sigh of relief last Friday night, he still wanted the Eastern Suns to play well against the Wolves and to keep their momentum rolling into the finals which they were able to do ahead of now facing Lakeside.
“It certainly took a bit of pressure off and it was almost kind of an anti-climax because we were pretty fired up to come up to Joondalup to get the win,” Knowles said.
“We worked pretty hard on scouting during the week but the pressure level definitely went down and we could just come out confident of getting through some stuff and improving some of our sets heading into the finals.
“To be honest I think we’ve already proven a bit over the last month or so that we can match it with the top teams.
“Really the defining two rounds for us were the back-to-back double-headers and to win the Redbacks game and get one against Warwick the next night when we were absolutely exhausted, and then have another double-header the next week to get three of those games was really good.
“Even though we were completely beaten up for the next week, that was the defining couple of rounds for us where we built our confidence.”
As for taking on Lakeside, it’s obviously a significant test for the Eastern Suns up against the defending champions who have again finished on top of the standings in 2019.
But for Knowles, he sees no reason why the Suns can’t realistically shoot for the upset.
“They are definitely a different team and the competition is a lot tighter this year, and I think a lot of us has come down to teams being able to get wins early on,” he said.
“We obviously struggled to get some early wins which almost burned us completely to be honest and those two Mandurah games that we lost back-to-back I always thought they’d come back to hurt us.
“They certainly did but at least we’ve still been able to scrape through. There’s a number of teams who have changed dramatically through the second half of the season so it’s all pretty tight I think.”
There has only been a handful of games all season where Knowles can legitimately claim to have had his full squad up and running given Yohn only arrived halfway through and even since then there have been games where key players have either missed games or been limited during matches.
But now despite a couple of players sore, the Suns are looking as healthy and depth as they have at any other point in 2019 which Knowles is thankful for.
“It’s good that it looks like we’ll have everyone available and I think we went 8-3 or 8-4 after Katie first arrived so she’s made a significant impact for us,” Knowles said.
“If we can get a couple more girls even more ready this week from a recovery perspective then that will help us even more next week. Hopefully we’ll be all good to go.
“We are reasonably happy heading into the finals, I just hope we can keep everyone on the floor. We have niggles which all teams have had, but I just hope we don’t have a repeat of last year where we lose three people for one game.
“That’s probably the biggest concern for me and we’ve been looking after Katie as a bit of a precaution because we’ll need her to play big minutes going into playoffs. She’ll be right to play and I think we’ll be pretty much at full strength now for the start of the finals.”
With the Suns women now back in the playoffs for a second straight season and the men qualifying for the first time since 2012, there is plenty of excitement around the Suns out Kalamunda way and Knowles is feeling that momentum building.
He’s now looking forward to plenty of Suns faithful heading to Lakeside for Game 1 this Friday night and then to experience a strong game night atmosphere next week for Game 2.
“It’s good for the club that we’ve got back to finals in consecutive years now. It’s been good for the club’s atmosphere and the girls went away with the boys to Kalgoorlie so that was a good bonding trip, and the click between the two teams has been a lot better this year,” Knowles said.
“That’s been really good for the whole club and making playoffs solidifies that a little bit. We’ve got a pretty good following on social media and we even had a lot of funs at Joondalup to support us and that’s partially because we are doing OK.
“The girls really notice that support and they’ve been engaging more with the fans as well. It’s coming along which is good. We love playing at home especially too and the playoff games last year between us and Willetton, I’d never heard our stadium that loud.
“The atmosphere was insane and it’s a reasonably small place so when it’s packed out with our home fans, it just goes nuts. Hopefully that will happen again when we play at home.”