IT is still remarkable to think a 23-year-old coach is leading a team into the Women’s SBL Grand Final, but that’s doing a disservice to Keegan Crawford who knows the Rockingham Flames so well, has done a tremendous job and couldn’t be prouder of his group.
Crawford is no ordinary young coach either. He has been a multiple year assistant coach to this Flames team under Ryan Petrik even dating back to their championship years in 2014 and 2015, so he had that relationship already with the likes of Darcee Garbin, Ariana Hetherington and Ella Kennedy especially.
But he has been constantly working on developing and improving his coaching, and was at the University of Lethbridge when he was asked to return to the Rockingham team to work as an assistant coach in 2019.
Little did he know at that point that by 13 games into the season he would take over as head coach and now have the Flames on an eight-game winning streak heading into Friday night’s Grand Final, but he deserves tremendous credit for that being the case.
The Flames finished the regular season in seventh position at 13-9 but were on a four-game winning run before eliminating local rivals Mandurah in two tightly contested battles in the quarter finals.
They then went up another gear to beat the Perry Lakes Hawks in two games of the semi finals and that was a team entering the series on their own eight-game winning streak.
That has Rockingham burning hot now entering Friday night’s Grand Final against the Warwick Senators at Bendat Basketball Centre.
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As for Crawford, he couldn’t be prouder of his Flames group to now get to the Grand Final but he’s trying to keep things as normal as possible for them this week.
“It’s a good feeling obviously. This is what you coach for and play for, but honestly I’m just treating it like any other game. Even in scenarios for playoffs and what not, we just focus on our scout and film, and the way we practice is something we try to keep the same,” Crawford said.
“Obviously the jitters and that sort of stuff will be there for the girls, as is normal in a Grand Final, but I’m very proud to be with this group and to be alongside them as we battle for the Grand Final. It’s going to be massive for us but it just another game mentality that we need to have.”
Obviously with a team that’s won eight straight games entering the Grand Final and has Darcee Garbin, Maddie Allen and Christina Boag up front with Alex Ciabattoni running the show there’s little for Crawford to not be pleased with right now in regards to the Flames.
The playoff series wins against Mandurah and Perry Lakes to reach the Grand Final were tremendous but more importantly given it’s a team that’s undergone a coaching change and other challenges throughout the season, he’s enjoyed seeing their resiliency shine through.
“I’m relatively happy with how we are playing and relatively content, but the job’s not done yet so we don’t want to get too ahead of ourselves but I’ve loved our ability to push through resiliency,” he said.
“I think almost every coach in the league knows how tough it is to go and get a win in Mandurah with the style they play and how tough they are. It’s the same thing with Perry Lakes with the expertise they have on their coaching staff, and their talented players.
“So I’ve been really happy with our ability to get up over those two super quality opponents, but now we come up against a third in the super tough Warwick. The resiliency we’ve shown to deal with everything we have this year has been our calling card and it’s something we are up for the challenge with.”
Despite how happy Crawford is with the Flames entering the Grand Final, he is fully aware of the challenge that the Senators are going to present.
The Flames did beat them late in the season at Warwick Stadium but that was a Senators team minus both Bianca Villegas and Tayla Hepburn so Crawford knows that now at full strength, they are a more than worthy Grand Final opponent.
“They are a super talented team. Dion has done a heck of a job with them and they obviously want it just as bad as us, it would be silly to say that we are the team that wants it more,” Crawford said.
“They haven’t been in a Grand Final since 2007 but they are super talented and they obviously have Stacey Barr who can just score from anywhere. But their team is so much more than that.
“Roscoe has been on fire recently, Tayla Hepburn coming back is a massive piece and they have two quality imports and good kids off the bench. We’d be silly to just focus on Stacey Barr because they have so many more weapons than that.
“We really have to follow our scout, execute our stuff more importantly and just stay true to the game plan that we’ve had the last few weeks.”
Even when the Flames bit the bullet and made the decision to change coaches mid-season, Crawford was confident of what they were capable of.
The addition since of Alex Ciabattoni has clearly helped that but he always felt that if they had everyone available come the business end of the season that they could have a real impact on the competition.
“Obviously with all the changes that happened mid-season, I still always knew that we had a talented group and we hoped to peak at the right time of the year,” he said.
“I think you saw that with some of the teams that made late finals pushes like Mandurah, Perry Lakes and ourselves, they were all the teams that made some changes with their personnel later in the year.
“We always knew that the Grand Final was our goal, that’s what we set ourselves for and winning it is our bigger goal. We’ve got there and now we have to do the even tougher work to get over the line.”
The addition to the Flames of Ciabattoni has been a significant move too and without question instrumental in them now reaching the Grand Final.
Across her 12 games now this season, Ciabattoni has delivered 17.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists on average while twice being only an assist shy of a triple-double.
While the front court at Rockingham is special, having Ciabattoni now at point guard is something Crawford is delighted with.
“Alex is massive for us. Obviously you can see the contribution she’s making on the stat sheet but she’s also providing a culture base. The girls just love playing with her and she bonds so well with them and she’s awesome in the locker room,” he said.
“She just allows to unlock so much with our team. We are obviously one of the biggest teams in the league and having her as a legit big ball handler just makes us really tough to defend.
“She also makes us quicker when she’s pushing the ball. We ask her to do a lot for us but she’s been massive on and off the court.”
For someone like Darcee Garbin to be so passionate about their SBL club like she is with the Flames is a massive boost too.
Not only is she an outstanding player on the floor and a match-winner at 22.1 points and 7.8 rebounds a game, but her heart will always lie with Rockingham and having someone who is part of the Australian Opals squad feeling that way is something undoubtedly special.
“She bleeds Rockingham. I think it was in her second or third week back here, she called me on the phone and I was wondering what issue I’d have to deal with now but it was about how could we improve Aussie Hoops and other things at the club,” Crawford said.
“She just cares and you ask her to do anything for the club, and she’ll do it. Obviously she’s a local growing up from this area after originally coming from Kalgoorlie, but this is her home club and she is just massive for us.
“More importantly, she’s a great role model for the girls who do sit at the end of the bench and the younger girls coming through the WABL program. Darcee was in the spot they were and now she’s a WNBL player, is in an Opals squad and she’s just a great role model for the club.”