HE drives his team hard and that’s why he’s one of the most respected leaders and warriors in SBL history and now Geraldton Buccaneers captain Mat Wundenberg couldn’t be prouder of his team to be one win away from that elusive championship.
Wundenberg has been chasing that championship his entire 437-game career with the Buccaneers that began back in 2004.
In only two of his 16 seasons have the Buccs not reached the finals and in most of the occasions they’ve reached the playoffs, they’ve been considered among the genuine championship contenders.
But so far all he has to show for that is the one previous Grand Final appearance in 2014 which didn’t go to plan against the East Perth Eagles.
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However, Wundenberg has continued to set the standard in terms of professionalism, work ethic and drive at the Buccaneers and despite the playoff heartbreaks along the way, his passion and belief that the club can still get that first championship since 2000 has remained strong.
Now the 36-year-old gets another chance this Saturday night when the Buccaneers play the 2019 SBL Grand Final against the Joondalup Wolves at Bendat Basketball Centre in what could very well be the 438th and last game of his glittering career.
Geraldton had to win through to the Grand Final the hard way needing three games in the quarter finals against the Warwick Senators and in the semi finals against the Lakeside Lightning.
That semi-final series saw them have to win Game 3 on the road last Sunday as well and after trailing most of the way, with Alex Ducas, Liam Hunt and Colter Lasher inspirational, and Aaron Ralph hitting a stunning banked in three, the Buccs prevailed to reach Saturday night’s Grand Final.
Wundenberg was understandably beaming with pride afterwards over his team’s performance.
“I can’t be more proud of this team to have given us a chance in the Grand Final. We’ve put this group together and had some challenges along the way, but the playing group has just shown so much heart all the way through,” Wundenberg said.
“We’ve just kept grinding away all season even when things have been going against us, but we have just kept working so hard and to be sitting on the bench when we won that game on Sunday to get into the Grand Final, I couldn’t be prouder.
“That was a hell of a Lakeside team we beat as well and Daniels is a great coach so for our coaching staff to adapt to the changes they made is a credit to us for making some changes back and getting the job done.”
Wundenberg is fully aware that the end of his career is approaching even though he’s yet to decide whether 2019 will be his last season or not.
And while he remains a hell of a beast when he’s on the court defending hard, setting screens to get his teammates open and rebounding strongly, he knows that what’s even more important is his role as the leader of this Buccs team and to be setting the standard for everyone else to follow.
It’s a role he takes seriously.
“As you get older, you feel like you might not be able to contribute quite as much on the court so it’s all about being a leader even more and keeping the boys calm, and challenging them when it’s needed and holding everyone accountable,” he said.
“We’ve got such a mature, professional team that they can take criticism, they can be challenged and everyone steps up. They don’t make any excuses, the guys work hard all week and they are a great bunch of guys.
“As everyone knows, we had to get rid of one of our imports who just couldn’t fit into the culture of the club and what we are striving to eventually achieve. I 100 per cent couldn’t be prouder of everyone.”
Helping Wundenberg not have to play the big minutes at centre anymore and battling the likes of Ash Litterick, Jarrad Prue or indeed Kevin Davis for 40 minutes or night has been the continued emergence of Liam Hunt.
Wundenberg just missed playing with his dad Dan who finished his career in 2003 and he began in 2004, but he can’t be happier with the progress of Hunt who without question is among the best players in the league now for everything he provides the Buccs as a big.
While Wundenberg wasn’t able to stay on the court as much as he would have liked due to foul trouble during the series with Lakeside, he knows with Hunt there that the Buccs are well equipped to always compete inside no matter the opponents.
“It is what it is. It’s a bit frustrating but me and Vigor were getting into it and I felt like I got a couple of rough calls but that’s alright. It couldn’t have worked out better in the end because Liam was phenomenal so the longer he stayed on the court was the better for us,” he said.
“I 100 per cent think he is the best centre in the league and that’s nothing personal that he never made the All-Star, but how he missed out I’ll never understand. I just think with his all-round game, his touch around the rim and everything else he does is just so good.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the way he battled in this series with Prue. Our game plan was that we had to help off him a little bit and Prue took advantage of that and that’s what smart players do.
“He actually had a phenomenal series did Jarrad Prue, he was awesome for them in all three games. But I felt that Liam kept plugging away and then his second half on Sunday was the standard that he always trains at, and it’s a credit to him and his work ethic that he delivered when it mattered most.”
Another Geraldton local that makes Wundenberg smile at the mention of his name is Alex Ducas.
He has been inspirational since returning for the Buccs late in the season and had a massive say in the series win over the Lightning in particular and now he’s been able to find a way to stay for the Grand Final before beginning college life at Saint Mary’s.
Wundenberg can’t wait to continue to follow his journey after hitting the floor one last time alongside him in Saturday night’s Grand Final.
“We were told before he even came back that the situation was that he would have to leave before the Grand Final but we just wanted to get there and once you are there, anything can happen,” Wundenberg said.
“He is a big contributor to us getting to where we are but in the bigger picture, he is just a great kid. You’ll see him at the stadium at midnight four times a week by himself just shooting.
“He loves the game and works harder than anyone you’ll meet and it’s a credit to him and to his family with the way they’ve supported him.
“He is going on to bigger and better things, and everyone in Geraldton supports him and will continue following his career to see how far he can go. We all wish him the best of luck.”
While the Buccaneers have done a tremendous job to reach the Grand Final, it hasn’t been a season without its share of drama.
Willie Conner initially was sent home as the first import guard just because the Buccs felt they could upgrade by bringing in DeAngelo Isby, Wundenberg has no doubt the best move was to send Isby packing too after the Game 1 win over the Senators in the best interests of the group’s culture.
It’s a strong statement from Wundenberg for him to say that he feels the Buccs became a better team by becoming a little less deep and talented following that move.
“Dayle is really about X’s and O’s and we have so many game plans that if you have one person on the court that doesn’t quite buy into that, it does leave a huge hole and probably 20 per cent of your offence and defence goes missing,” Wundenberg said.
“We made the decision that we would run with what we’ve got and we had Alex back in and he’s an import quality player at 18 years of age.
“He was phenomenal in this series so that was a decision made by the coaching staff that was fully supported by the playing group and we believe it was the right thing to do.
“We don’t think we’d be in this position without making that decision so we are proud of the way we are playing and how we’ve got to here.”
You can’t mention Wundenberg without also including something about Aaron Ralph who he has now played almost 400 games alongside. Ralph will play his 399th game in the Grand Final and Wundenberg wouldn’t want to be there without his best mate.
“He’s my best mate and as everyone knows we’ve played together for 13 years now playing together,” he said.
“He hit another huge shot late in that Game 3 which is what he always does but we won’t talk about his tech foul.
“He banked that three to put us up four and sometimes you have that lucky shot that falls in, but you have to make your own luck. I wouldn’t want to be on this journey with anyone else than him, it just wouldn’t be the same without having him here.”
As happy and proud as Wundenberg is for the Buccaneers to have reached the Grand Final, he is fully aware that everything they faced from the Senators and Lightning will be nothing compared to what the Wolfpack throw at them on Saturday night.
Knowing that the Wolves have lost three straight Grand Finals and desperately won’t want to make it four, Wundenberg knows it’s going to take the best Buccs effort of the season to get the job done.
“They are playing phenomenal basketball at the moment and they’ve clean swept to come straight in and they are on a bit of a winning streak. They are a very talented team but it’s a Grand Final and I can’t wait for it,” he said.
“We’ll spent the week preparing for it and it’s just about sticking to our processes and procedures. We’ll come up with a game plan and hopefully we can execute on the night and bring that championship to Geraldton.”
Wundenberg continues to be blown away by the support the Buccs receive both with the travelling contingent of fans and then with the reception they’ve received back home in the lead up to the Grand Final.
He hopes to be able to reward them as much as anything with a championship triumph on Saturday night.
“We have a phenomenal fan base and they have been so passionate and supportive of the team. I’m sure that everyone this week will congratulate us and be pretty excited, but we’ll keep it pretty level-headed as a playing group,” Wundenberg said.
“Some of us senior players and guys that have played overseas know that the job’s not done and that’s our mindset.
“The job isn’t done yet and we’re just looking forward to enjoying the week but preparing the best we can. If we are lucky enough that everyone’s fit and healthy, then we’ll look forward to giving it our best shot.”