WITH two genuine MVP candidates, two outstanding leaders, a quality Tongan and Kiwi, and quite the young gun, it’s no surprise to see the Geraldton Buccaneers reach the 2019 Grand Final and coach Dayle Joseph hopes they embrace the chance they’ve given themselves.
Ever since breaking through for a championship in 2000, the Buccaneers have been perennial contenders in the Men’s SBL and have only missed the playoffs twice in that time since.
There has been plenty of heartbreak along the way including Grand Finals in 2001 and 2014, but the Buccs just keep coming back and continue to put themselves in a position to succeed and now they are one win away from that elusive second championship.
The Buccaneers needed three games against both the Warwick Senators and Lakeside Lightning to book a spot in this Saturday night’s Grand Final against the Joondalup Wolves, but that certainly has them match hardened for what’s to come against the Wolfpack.
It’s a Buccs team with a new coach in 2019 as Dayle Joseph has taken back the helm but the rest of the changes have been minimal.
There’s still Liam Hunt and Mat Wundenberg holding down the middle, you still have Aaron Ralph providing everything that Aaron Ralph has over 398 SBL games with Colter Lasher and Marcus Alipate back for their second seasons in Geraldton.
Brayden Inger and Brendan Dinardo are important pieces of the team as well but then there is 18-year-old excitement machine Alex Ducas.
He has had a massive say in his hometown team reaching the Grand Final and while the start of his college life with Saint Mary’s awaits, Grand Final week’s great mystery looks more likely now to see him able to stay for Saturday night’s game before he departs for California.
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The Buccs have continued to put themselves in a chance to succeed ever since that 2014 Grand Final loss to East Perth.
They’ve had heartbreaking semi-final losses in 2016 to the Cockburn Cougars and 2017 to the Joondalup Wolves while bowing out to the super hot Goldfields Giants in 2015 and then as minor premiers to the Rockingham Flames in 2018.
That’s why there was no need for major changes coming into 2019 even with a new coaching staff on board with Joseph joined by Scott Rubery who coached the Giants in 2018.
While it hasn’t been all smooth sailing along the way and they have said goodbye to imports Willie Conner and DeAngelo Isby, and they were without Alipate for a seven-game stretch and Ducas has played just 12 of 32 matches, the Buccs have earned their way to the Grand Final.
Despite what they’ve been through, Joseph always knows with Wundenberg and Ralph as leaders that they will always be a chance.
Then with Hunt continuing to battle hard inside, Lasher proving himself one of the best all-round players in the league and Alipate a tremendous scoring and distributing guard, and Joseph was always confident things could come together.
He now couldn’t be prouder to see them earn their way into the Grand Final.
“If you knew the hard work we’ve put in, we train pretty hard and the guys bang each other around at training. We’ve had a bit of a countdown to get here knowing what was required and the guys didn’t step away from anything,” Joseph said.
“We had a couple of changes of players during the season to try and get the right mix, and in the end what we have now is our team and what we are happy to go to battle with. And it certainly was a battle to get here but I couldn’t be prouder of the team.”
While you can’t underestimate the influence of Ralph and Wundenberg as leaders with this Geraldton team, and you have to acknowledge the impact of Ducas in them reaching the Grand Final, the cornerstone of this 2019 group has been Hunt and Lasher.
Hunt has had to put in a power of work inside all season long and he might be undersized and doesn’t have the support that other big men do in the league outside of Wundenberg, but never has he shirked from the challenge.
Playing with the heart that made his father Dan one of the all-time greats of the SBL with the Buccs, Hunt has delivered an MVP-calibre season made up of 15.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists a game and it would be remarkable if he hadn’t received professional contract offers.
Then there is Lasher with the small forward back for his second season in the league and he might well be the least talked about star in the SBL. But he has delivered 18.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists a game and then during the playoffs that has risen to 22.7 points, 6.7 boards and 2.2 assists.
While Lasher can shoot, his ability to drive to the basket and either draw fouls or finish strongly has become one of the great strengths of this Buccaneers team and Joseph would be bewildered if he wasn’t high up in MVP voting.
“Liam felt he didn’t have a great game on Saturday night and statistically he didn’t have the points he’d like but he still gave it everything he had. But we asked him for a little bit more and we certainly got it, he was amazing,” Joseph said.
“And obviously Colter, in my mind he is the league’s MVP and he might not have always got that recognition during the season, but he’s been working towards it and we knew he had this sort of form in him. He has been fantastic for us.”
Much of the talk in Grand Final week has surrounded whether or not Ducas will be allowed to stay by St Mary’s for the game before he then departs to start his college life and ultimately playing basketball with the Gaels to continue Australia’s fine tradition at the school.
It now appears likely that Ducas will be allowed to stay and then fly out Sunday morning for California, but either way he has been enormous throughout the playoffs in the Buccs reaching the Grand Final.
That included a combined 57 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists in the two games against Lakeside last weekend. Whatever happens this Saturday night, Joseph is excited to follow the rest of Ducas’ career.
“Alex is obviously a very special player and he’s shown that in this finals series whether it was against Senators or the Lightning,” he said.
“He has shown what he was capable of and there are big things ahead for Alex. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he achieves in the future.”
The history over the past 19 years with the Buccs striving for that second SBL championship is hard to ignore, but that’s for others to worry about and to think about when you aren’t in the heat of battle.
What Joseph and the Buccs have focused on is doing what they need to do to give themselves the chance they now have.
“We have just been focusing on what this group can achieve this year and not worried about anything that’s happened in the past,” Joseph said.
“Obviously we start looking at the ultimate from the start of the year and what process you think will put yourselves in a position to play finals, and then you work your way through that.
“That’s pretty much what we’ve done and win or lose come Saturday night, we know we would have given it everything we’ve got.”
Looking back on five years ago, Joseph has no doubt that has spurred on the players that were there on that night against the East Perth Eagles, but ultimately when you have a captain like Wundenberg driving the group on, they have no choice but to give their all.
“They had an opportunity in a Grand Final a few years ago that they missed so we’ve been talking all year about giving ourselves opportunities all throughout the season,” he said.
“We’ve given ourselves this chance and as the captain, Mat is pretty proud of the team as well. He drives them all pretty hard and he gets on their goat a little bit sometimes with how hard he drives them, and his expectations are pretty high. But that has helped us get to where we are now.”
Joseph isn’t totally sure what to expect in Geraldton this week as preparations for the Grand Final heats up, but he is sure the support will be massive both in town and then with the travelling fans once they get to Bendat Basketball Centre on Saturday night.
“I’ve never been in this situation before but I know in the past we’ve had tremendous support locally. You can even see this weekend the amount of people who travelled down and made the effort to get to these games,” he said.
“I have no doubt that everyone will be behind us and my phone started buzzing as soon as we won the game on Sunday. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of messages coming through and we’ll have the whole town behind us this week.”
As the Buccaneers prepare for their first Grand Final since 2014 with only Ralph and Wundenberg remaining from that team, they come up against a Wolfpack team preparing for their fifth consecutive Grand Final appearance.
But Joseph isn’t worried about any of that, he just hopes the Buccs can put up a fight and keep it close, and then pull out the victory down the stretch.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge against the Wolves. They have been the benchmark for how long now and I could only imagine what’s going through their mind coming into a fifth straight Grand Final after losing the last three,” Joseph said.
“I could only imagine what they are feeling and what they are going to bring to the table. But we hope to make it a battle and if we can turn it into that then I think we’ll have a good chance.
“We probably haven’t matched up on each other at full strength either so this will be the first time in a one-off game. We want to turn it into a bit of a battle if we can and see if we can pinch it at the end.”