REACHING five consecutive Grand Finals is a remarkable feat but so is having the courage and resilience to get there again after losing three straight and Joondalup Wolves coach Ben Ettridge puts it down to everyone involved having their own motivation to earn another opportunity.
This Wolfpack team who is preparing to play in a fifth consecutive Men’s SBL Grand Final will become just the second team in the history of the league to achieve that feat after the Perry Lakes Hawks played in five in-a-row from 2001 to 2005, for four championships.
The run for the Wolves started with a championship triumph back in 2015 and while they have played in the past three Grand Finals, it has resulted in heartbreaking defeats to the Cockburn Cougars, Perth Redbacks and Perry Lakes Hawks.
As hard as it is to try to win back-to-back championships, bouncing back the next year after losing a Grand Final is likely even more challenging and to think of the task of doing that three years running is almost unthinkable.
Along the way to returning to Grand Finals the next year, the Wolves did eliminate Cockburn in 2017 and now Perry Lakes in 2019 as they now prepare for a fifth straight Grand Final this Saturday night against the Geraldton Buccaneers at Bendat Basketball Centre.
The determination, courage and resilience to have again finished as regular season champions and get back to another Grand Final on the back of how heartbreaking each of the past three years has been can’t be underestimated.
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For Wolfpack coach Ben Ettridge, who is preparing to coach in his sixth Grand Final with wins in 2011 and 2015, and losses the past three years, he puts down the achievement to each player having their own motivation and that coming together to drive the whole group.
“We sit down at the start of the year and we say to each other why do we want to get there. Some guys say it’s because they want to win a championship, some are doing it so their kids can see them play in a Grand Final and some are doing it for their under-14s coach or for their mum and dad,” Ettridge said.
“You do it for your why, whatever it is. You don’t do it for the money at this level, we are doing it because there is someone or something that is motivating us. We share that motivation with each other and we know what drives each other on, and we support each other which is what gets us through.
“That’s what gets you through a losing streak, that’s what gets you through a Grand Final loss. The first person that you are going to hug is your nearest and dearest, and the first person after a win will be your nearest and dearest. That’s why we are able to keep getting back here.”
Ettridge isn’t short on his own motivation to continue to be the leader of the Wolfpack either. He deserves to be considered among not only the all-time great coaches of WA basketball, but still today one of the best basketball minds in the state who could comfortably step up further in other roles.
But when he needs motivation, all he has to do is see the remarkable support the Wolves have and how that has built through their hard work over the past decade, but on a more personal level it’s his father who is that ultimate motivating force.
“When you turn and look up into the grandstand and there are 400 people wearing green supporting you, that’s a big why about why we are doing this,” he said.
“You want to do it for them and you reflect back when 10 years ago we’d only have 100 people in total watching our home games, so you don’t take this support for granted and you want to do it for them.
“Then you always have your personal motivation and my dad is in a hospital bed while we are wrapping up this series after being rushed to hospital the day before. I spent 12 hours with him and I went to see him before going to watch the other series to find out our opponent, that’s my why.
“This one is as much for him as it is for those supporters, but we all go through adversity and you find something that drives you to be the best that you can be. Dad should be alright, he’s an old paraplegic.
“He won’t be at the Grand Final and he hasn’t actually been to any games this year, but he’ll be fine. He will be with me in spirit and will be following the live stats as he does, and will let me know what he’s thinking with a text at half-time.
“That’s what he does and that’s what it means. You do it for those people that support you through the good times and the bad.”
The Wolves are now entering the Grand Final in supremely impressive form too. They are on a six-game winning streak and won both playoff series so far with two-nil victories against the Kalamunda Eastern Suns and Perry Lakes Hawks.
Not only did they win all four games, but they dominated virtually the whole way in each of them. Take out the first half of Game 1 against the Suns and a couple of brief Hawks runs in Game 1 of that semi-final contest, and it has been a dominant finals series from the Wolfpack to date.
Across the four games, different players have stepped up with big performances whether it was Earnest Ross putting up 28 points, eight rebounds and five assists in Game 2 against Kalamunda, Ridell Camidge and Trian Iliadis combining for 51 points in Game 2 against Perry Lakes, or any number of standout performances.
But moreover, it’s the core group at the Wolfpack still consisting of Iliadis, Seb Salinas, Ben Ironmonger, Reece Maxwell, Rob Huntington and Damian Matacz that provide the backbone with Kevin Davis, Ross and Camidge the 2019 icing on the cake.
Having had a group so accustomed to performing at a high level together is without doubt a strength of the Wolves and Ettridge is glad to have that remarkable chemistry year after year with only a couple of fresh faces at any time needing to find their feet in the system.
“That’s the beauty of having that system and continuity in the system. When we make a change, it’s not really a change to something new, it might be a change to something we did two or three years ago,” Ettridge said.
“We still run offences and baseline plays that we did in 2011, and we can pull those out of the hat because guys know them and they are ingrained, and in their DNA. That’s what we lean on a lot and then you slot in quality guys like Kevin, Ridell and Earnest, and it’s not a hard fit for them.
“EJ’s challenge in that last series was to go out and defend like a maniac and get 10 rebounds for us, and he delivered. Kevin just does his job week in and week out, he dives on that rim.
“The hardest job for any big in the league is to set a pick and dive on the rim, and he’s happy to do that. I couldn’t be prouder and everyone has bought into the system and now we have one to go.”
The Wolfpack will now have the confidence of having wrapped up the semi finals against Perry Lakes on the same Bendat Basketball Centre floor that they will play the Grand Final against the Buccs this Saturday night.
Having also beaten the Hawks there by 36 points to open the season as well, their last two memories on the floor are good ones and Ettridge doesn’t know if it provides any sort of edge over the Buccaneers, but it certainly can’t hurt.
“I think it has to help at least a little bit. The last two times we’ve played here now we have shot the ball really, really well. One of the other added advantages is that our stadium is very similar to this now with the lighting exactly the same, and it’s a big, wide-open court,” he said.
“It’s not like the old Joondalup Stadium where you’re playing on a shed on a small court. We shoot the ball very well generally and we have seven guys shooting over 36 per cent from the three-point line so wherever we’ve played we have shot the ball well. We are looking forward to getting back here and getting some buckets.”
Then there is the fact that the majority of the Wolves players are used to being in a Grand Final with only Camidge and Ross preparing to be there for the first time while only Aaron Ralph and Mat Wundenberg were there for the Buccaneers in their last appearance in 2014.
Again only time will tell if it’s any sort of advantage, but for Ettridge at least he and the Wolves players know what to expect in the build up to Saturday night.
“It’s like everything, our guys are used to the week and used to the routine of preparing for a Grand Final, and the parking and ticket situations you have to deal with. They are used to the night before so it won’t be new to them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an advantage,” Ettridge said.
“Experience can mean a lot but when we won our first one the boys had never been to a Gran Final and sometimes those nerves help you achieve above your normal level. It starts at 0-0 now on Saturday night and there’s 40 minutes of basketball which we’ll give it a red hot crack in.”