WNBL: Paul Goriss on the University of Canberra Capitals' resurgent year
With seven premierships to their name, the University of Canberra Capitals are the most successful club in WNBL history, but after losing the iconic likes of Lauren Jackson, Jess Bibby and coach Carrie Graf to retirement, had endured two barren years. Under new coach Paul Goriss, who joined the team from Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence, their primary aim was to restore a winning culture to the club and identify young players who can form the core of the team for years to come.
Coaching staff identified 14 wins as the magic number to qualify for the semis before the season, but felt the finals would just be the “icing on the cake”. After only recording two wins last year, the Capitals tallied 13, with a couple of heartbreaking losses and badly-timed injuries seeing them just miss the playoffs. They beat every other WNBL team, but also lost to every other opponent. Overall, their improvement was dramatic, with the team increasing their points per game from 60.8 last year to a far healthier 72.
A huge part of this resurgence was down to the return of Marianna Tolo, who was utterly dominant at both ends. After being encouraged to subdue her selfless instincts and be a key scorer, she ranked third in the league in total points, while her elite rim protection made her a no-brainer choice for defensive player of the year. Sadly for the Caps, Tolo will return overseas next season, though it is not goodbye for good. “She goes to Europe with our blessing” Goriss says, “knowing that one day she’ll be back as a Canberra Capital”.
Goriss is under no illusions as to the difficulty of replacing such a player, however. “To be quite honest, Tolo is irreplaceable” he says. As influential as the Opals star was on the court, her impact on the club went well beyond her prolific shot-blocking and low post scoring. “She was great with sponsors, great with fans, great with kids and just amazing with the playing group. She played through injury for a lot of the year, and when she couldn’t play, she was getting ice for people, running water bottles for the other girls, that’s the sort of person she is. She’s a consummate player and professional. She’ll talk to anyone and gives everyone the time of day”.
Among Tolo’s frontcourt partners was Keely Froling, a long, athletic forward who has been a fixture in elite junior squads. Already signed for next season, she enjoyed a successful rookie year, particularly after her college career was marred by knee injuries described as “really horrific”. Froling brought real intensity to her court time and projects as a top rebounder; she collected a rebound every 4.86 minutes, a rate comparable to elite rebounders like Carley Mijovic (4.25) and Laura Hodges (4.48). More generally, she soaked up knowledge from the seasoned pros in the squad. “She really did a commendable job” Goriss says. “For her, training with people like Carly Wilson and Jazmon (Gwathmey) really expedited her learning”.
The team is also keeping an eye on the progress of Froling’s twin sister, Alicia, who is currently smashing rebounding and scoring records for Division 1 school Southern Methodist University, though it’s far from a given the pair will once again play together. “She’s part of our recruiting plans for sure, we’d love to have her” Goriss says of Alicia. “But we’re also aware that (the sisters) don’t necessarily come as a package deal”.
Capitals already have one set of sisters, local juniors Callie and Issie Bourne, who joined the team as development players and earned some valuable exposure to WNBL level. Callie is a waterbug point guard while Issie, one of the youngest players to get court time in the recent years, could potentially play at multiple positions. Both reflect the team’s focus on providing a pathway for talented locals.
The youth movement also includes third year guard Abbey Wehrung. While Goriss initially told Wehrung that he wasn’t that sure she was an WNBL player, the 21-year-old soon overcame his initial scepticism and was arguably amongst the competition’s most improved players, upping her numbers across the board. She was also more efficient, raising her field goal percentage from 34% to 41%, and seeing her outside shooting percentage jump from 28% to 40%. It’s an improvement Goriss puts down to her work ethic. “She is one of the hardest working young players I’ve seen. She lives the game, she loves the game, and she really proved she belongs”. Her late absence due to an ankle injury proved telling: “We were much better when she was on the court”.
More experienced players also had strong campaigns for the resurgent team. Mikaela Ruef joined from Adelaide and continued to be a monster on the boards; she led the competition in rebounds and earned a training camp invite from WNBA champions Los Angeles Sparks. Point guard Lauren Mansfield continued to push her case for Opals selection as a high level pick and roll orchestrator, while Kate Gaze was an elite catch and shoot player in her best games, most memorably sinking six of six three-pointers to help inflict a rare loss on Sydney. Gaze struggled with back problems at times and Goriss says her best form directly correlated with her health. “When she had that time on the court and practise time, that’s when she was really shooting well”.
As much as possible, the Capitals plan to keep this core together. Goriss is an avowed admirer of the San Antonio Spurs, who are widely regarded as basketball’s smartest organisation and place a high value on continuity. Just as that team gave retiring legend Tim Duncan the opportunity to be “assistant coach of whatever he likes”, the Caps have every intention of keeping beloved retiree Carly Wilson involved in a yet to be determined role.
“We’ve had a brief discussion (about her future), but I also want to give her some time and space, it was an emotional time with her retiring and how we went out” Goriss says of Wilson. “She’s very keen to get into coaching, but she’s also always telling me she hasn’t had an off-season or a summer off in 18 years. So she needs some time away from the game, but definitely wants to help in any way she can, so she’ll be around, whether that is doing individuals or in some other capacity”.
As the team continues to rebuild, the passionate Goriss has become a strong advocate for the club’s links with the University of Canberra and believes such affiliations can be key to the league successfully competing for talent with the US college system. “I think it’s just a case of educating the players on how we can develop them here, because I think we can do it better than the colleges”.
He is full of praise for the current Capitals setup. “I may be biased, but the facilities and support staff…it really couldn’t have been better. We have something special here”. For Canberra fans who have been heartened by the team’s vastly improved on court fortunes, such an endorsement for their off-court setup is a huge positive as they look to return to their glory days.