Rockingham Flames flickered throughout 2019, but light never went out on SBL championship dream

Stuart HortonSound Telegraph
The Flames crowned 2019 women's SBL champions.
Camera IconThe Flames crowned 2019 women's SBL champions. Credit: Stuart Horton

Nearly two months have passed since guiding the Rockingham Flames to their third women’s State Basketball League championship, and the significance of that achievement has finally sunk in for rookie coach Keegan Crawford.

Parachuted into the the head coaching role following the mid-season departure of Craig Reynolds, Crawford guided the Flames from seventh position on the ladder to grand final triumph on August 30 by way of a nine-game end of season winning streak.

The 85-56 triumph over Warwick was the culmination of a belief among the squad that it was more than equipped to go all the way in 2019, despite a few hiccups along the way, including the change in off-court leadership.

“I think you can approach a basketball team a variety of different ways so there’s not necessarily a right or a wrong way to do things,” Crawford said of taking the head coaching reins.

“When I had to step in and Robyn (Vogel) came in (as an assistant coach) we tried to do what was best for the girls and they responded well and it went pretty well from there.

“I thought straight away there was no reason this team couldn’t be a team that contends, just with the talent on paper. But basketball isn’t just about who wins it on paper, that’s never worked out well for teams in the past, so we were always trying to tweak and fix things.”

Undoubtedly of benefit to the team’s upturn in fortunes was the addition of Alex Ciabattoni coinciding with Crawford’s appointment, plus star recruit Darcee Garbin becoming more familiar with her teammates following her late arrival.

Flames coach Keegan Crawford collects his championship ring from Perth Lynx coach Andy Stewart.
Camera IconFlames coach Keegan Crawford collects his championship ring from Perth Lynx coach Andy Stewart. Credit: Stuart Horton

This allowed the coaching team to hone in on what had already worked for them to that point but to also make some defensive adjustments to play to the Flames players’ strengths and exploit opposition players’ weaknesses, which freed up players like Chris Boag, whose form in the second half of the season was a big reason for the Flames’ success.

“At the end of the year we were able to throw some different line-ups on the floor that allowed (players) to exploit the mismatches they had,” Crawford said.

“Chris was one player who benefited; she was able to take guards inside and beat them up low, she was able to take bigs off the perimeter, and the line-ups we were able to put together really emphasised the individual ability of all five girls at any time.

“The line-ups that we had, especially in the play-offs, we could adjust to whoever our best weapon was that night.”

Co-captain Ella Kennedy put the team’s end of year success down to retaining a positive outlook and confidence in their abilities after the mid-season upheaval.

“Everyone stayed very positive, obviously everyone was shocked (at Reynolds’ departure) but I think everyone was so determined to prove that although things hadn't gone as planned we could still be strong competitors,” she said.

“There was definitely still a heap of confidence in our ability, we had far too much talent and experience to let it stop us, if anything it only made us even hungrier for the win.”

Kennedy said the players also leaned on one another for support as the play-offs approached, and praised co-captain Chelsea Petrik especially for her role in rousing morale within the squad.

“I think Chelsea really stepped up this year. She played out of position for most of the season and killed it. Her effort at both ends of the court was amazing,” she said.

“The thing that stood out to me most was the change in attitude in the second half of the year. It was like reality set in and everyone realised how badly they wanted to win and contributed in whatever way they could, whether that was on or off the court.

“The support everyone gave each other in the lead up to finals and throughout the finals series made it such an enjoyable team to be apart of.”

Both coach and co-captain pointed to the arrival of former WNBL rookie of the year Ciabbatoni as a massive moment in the season.

Crawford said her impact was obvious if you looked at the box score, but he believed her presence around the squad was just as important, while Kennedy said Ciabbatoni’s style of game was one the team was comfortable with and that allowed her fit in seamlessly.

“(Alex’s) veteran leadership and coming into the situation midyear with a calming voice like ‘hey guys, we’re good, we’re alright, we’ve got this’ (was important),” Crawford said.

“Sometimes emotions were high but her being a professional, coming in having seen every scenario before, having her be able to focus on basketball and motivating the girls on what they needed motivating on, she was a consummate professional.

Co-captain Ella Kennedy cuts herself a piece of the net as a souvenir.
Camera IconCo-captain Ella Kennedy cuts herself a piece of the net as a souvenir. Credit: Stuart Horton

“The advice she was giving she was able to back up on the court too. If she was speaking from experience saying we needed to tighten up our defence she would be the first to tighten up. Anything she said she backed up with her own play.”

“I think we really started to gel a few games after Alex arrived,” Kennedy said.

“By then everyone had settled in, we all knew our rolls and a few girls who were out with injuries were back at full strength. Having Alex come into the team definitely helped us. She plays the style of game we were all so used to and comfortable with which I think helped get some confidence back, which is always good for team morale.”

The Flames had no hesitation in seeking Ciabbatoni’s signature for the 2020 season, with her signing for next season confirmed late last week.

Crawford said he was keen to keep the core of young Rockingham juniors and senior Australian players that took the club to silverware, but wasn’t adverse to bringing in the right imports should the chance arise.

“There’s nothing wrong with having imports and bringing them over; sometimes you hit some absolute winners - look at Sami Whitcomb, Emma Cannon and Ali Schwagmeyer,” he said.

“But I really like the idea of building a group of Australians and building through your club and promoting the players that are already around you. But there is an element of being excited about the next prospect or girls wanting to go overseas, so it’s about balancing what you have with your roster and what needs work - developing it or going on from there.”

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails