THREE key signings might not end up eventuating for the South West Slammers if the 2020 SBL season does get up and about, but coach Nathan Grover remains confident his young women’s group will be competitive and is delighted to have added Vanessa Michael.
Grover began his preparations for the 2020 Women’s SBL season the moment the Slammers’ 2019 campaign ended in disappointing fashion losing their last five matches to miss out on a playoff appearance.
Their last three losses came at an average of 34.3 points against the Lakeside Lightning, Perry Lakes Hawks and Willetton Tigers after they had been a strong chance of returning to finals action after a good win over the Cockburn Cougars which gave them four victories in the space of six games.
So that tough way to end such a promising season meant that Grover went straight to work on planning for the 2020 season, and by the time the Blitz came around, he was delighted with the squad he’d put together and couldn’t have been more excited at what lied ahead.
His first mission at the end of last season was to ask import big Brittni Montgomery to return and he got the answer in the affirmative, and she was here in time for the Blitz and was looking capable on improving on her 15.0 points and 9.8 rebounds of 2019.
Grover was also able to able to secure the signature of another new import in Mari Stewart along with New Zealander Tea Charlton.
Add that trio to the experienced Vanessa Michael agreeing to make the move from Cockburn and they were four additions that Grover was buoyant over in terms of what they could provide for a young group that still did include 198-game veteran Bianca Donovan.
As is usually the case with the Slammers, the losses were significant too led by star import guard Makailah Dyer and club greats Kate Fielding and Courtney Bayliss, but overall Grover had reason to be feeling good about how the team had come together.
Then Coronavirus hit, the season was postponed, the Slammers had to bid farewell to Montgomery, Charlton and Stewart who all returned home, and now wait patiently to see if the 2020 campaign will start up at all and if so, under what guidelines.
While there remains still more questions than answers over what the 2020 season holds, Grover does reflect on the end of last season and on how much better prepared for this campaign he felt than his first season in charge when he was appointed coach relatively deep into the off-season.
“I started preparing for this season probably the first day after our last game last season against Willetton. To finish where we did and to be close to making the finals was hard but I knew the earlier I started to prepare, the better,” Grover said.
“I think I’m a bit wiser now after having had that first year and having got the job pretty late in 2018 to lead into that season. I didn’t have as much time to prepare but preparations with recruiting and how our line-up would look got going pretty early for 2020.
“I got a commitment from Brittni pretty early for her to come back and then obviously with Mac moving up to Perth, I knew where our gaps were with Courtney and Kate retiring as well.
“The focus really was on development and where we’d fit the kids in, and bring them through because that’s crucial for us and a couple of players we could poach as well.
“Last year really taught me a lot and I did a lot of self-assessment over the off-season about where I was weak last year and what I needed to improve on. I think I’m a lot better prepared now for this season than I would have been last year.”
While the focus at the Slammers will always be on providing as many opportunities as possible for young players from the south-west, they always require good leadership around them and that’s where Grover moved quickly to find replacements for Fielding and Bayliss.
Receiving a commitment from Donovan to play on as she approaches 200 SBL games was crucial and then so was securing the signature of another player with 198 SBL matches under her belt split between Cockburn and Rockingham, Michael.
She might not be the same type of player as the perimeter oriented Bayliss and Fielding, but she is a tremendous leader and has great experience to provide as an inside presence.
That will become even more important now if Montgomery, Stewart and Charlton don’t end up playing in 2020, but already coming into the season Grover knew he’d struck a winner by signing Michael.
“Right from the outset from the first training session in she was vocal, putting her opinions forward during drills and scrimmages, and really taking on that leadership role,” he said.
“That’s taken on greater importance for us with Kate and Courtney departing so having that voice come in at trainings and within the group has been great. I’ve known Mike for years and I’ve always known that she’s been a stand up girl on and off the court.
“I was really pleased when she said she would join us and make the trek down. Her role will now have to change but she’s embraced it and more importantly she just wanted to be part of a great club, and a good culture before she heads into retirement.”
When or if the SBL season does get underway for 2020, there’s no question the Slammers are going to have to place more faith in their young brigade than ever before.
They have lost some key young players in recent years including Georgia Denehey and Tayah Burrows. They clearly would have been more than handy in the back court of 2020 had they been in Bunbury still, but it’s not to be and Grover won’t be crying over spilt milk.
Instead he’ll be backing in the young players still at the club and providing them with opportunities including those who showed encouraging signs in 2019 like Adele East, Ebony Bilcich, Beige Harris, Javene Fitch, Skye Palmer and Zaya Black.
“First and foremost was what we did with the young girls and who we could bring into the group. We retained Adele and we kept our two under-18 girls in Zaya and Skye as well as the local girls like Ebony as well,” Grover said.
“They are always first and foremost on the player list and we focused on keeping them because that’s what we need in Bunbury.
“We go through a couple of years now where we’ve had a bit of a lull in female numbers while the boys are peaking, but give it a couple of years and we’ll start to pick up again.
“We have to recognise that over the next couple of years we might struggle a little bit with numbers, but at the same time we have to make sure we retain and keep them, and set a pathway for them.”
Another reason for great excitement at the Slammers coming into 2020 was the arrival as men’s coach of Australian basketball legend, and returning local, Mark Worthington.
Grover felt a big change already in the excitement levels at the whole club with Worthington’s arrival and was looking forward to seeing that translate into the season proper, and still is.
“You just see his impact with the sheer volume of players that he had with the players at pre-season,” Grover said.
“It’s such a stark difference from last year when you’d see a handful of players at training, but now there’d be 30 before all of this happened. I guess his name alone just attracts that and a lot of the young boys have taken the opportunity to learn and play under him.
“He’s already done wonders for the club and he will continue to for the next few years, and hopefully that will have a flow on effect to the girls program as well with his contacts and what he’ll do down at the club.
“He’s obviously been great for the whole club and collectively at the Slammers we’ve stepped it up with the work we’ve been doing off the court.
“Sponsorship was already up, money was coming into the club and a lot of people were doing a lot of good things behind the scenes to get us up and running where we’ve struggled in that area in recent years.
“Hopefully once we get playing again, that reflects in crowd numbers and the excitement we can generate in the south-west.”