When Suzy Batkovic bid an emotional farewell to Townsville’s 2016/17 campaign, it marked the end of an era of lofty success and the first time in four years the Fire hadn’t progressed to the grand final. It was a season which swung from brilliant to frustrating several times, perhaps peaking and plateauing in the same game, a thrilling overtime win against Sydney which also saw Kelly Wilson sidelined with a costly ankle injury.
Again, the central figure in the Fire’s campaign was the three-time Olympian Batkovic, who terrorised opponents inside the key, powering and finessing her way to a record fifth league MVP win. Batkovic finished second in points per game (20.92), second in rebounds per game (10.85) and sixth in total blocks (30).
Claudia Brassard, who moved into the head coach role this season after previously playing for the club and serving as assistant coach during the back to back championships, says that the intangibles Batkovic brought to the table were just as important. “Her captaincy and leadership skills are something she works on constantly”.
Indeed, Batkovic’s forthright leadership style was something that gave the team a real identity. “If you want someone to have your back, you could not have someone better than Suzy. If she thinks something isn’t right, or one of her teammates is missing out on something, she’ll go straight to the source”.
Brassard suggests Batkovic, a great teacher and mentor, was particularly beneficial for young power forward Darcee Garbin, who was a shining light against Sydney as the team went down to the white-hot Flames side in the semi-finals. “(Darcee) is a really good, promising player” Brassard says. “She would normally come off the bench and get us a couple of boards right away. But her greatest asset is her personality. She has a great work ethic and she wants to learn”.
Darcee Garbin had a strong year and learned plenty from Suzy Batkovic.
Players from last year’s championship side like Micaela Cocks, Batkovic and Garbin were joined by livewire point guard Kelly Wilson, though the Fire's prized acquisition was dogged by injury at the start of the season and later missed games with an ankle fracture. “I think she’d say it was the most frustrating season she’s had” Brassard says. “I think we’ll see a much better Kelly Wilson next year”.
Instead of playing in the SEABL competition during the off-season like she normally does, Wilson plans to sit it out, but Brassard suggests that the high-energy guard, who was regularly doing extra work in the gym and video room, will be doing anything but enjoying some rest and relaxation. “She won’t be sitting on her bum, she’ll be keeping very active in some way”.
Kelly Wilson: unlikely to be found "sitting on her bum"
While WNBA player Natasha Cloud and Kiwi international Micaela Cocks looked set to give the Fire flexibility and valuable injury cover at the one when Wilson was injured, Brassard says the point guard logjam was both a blessing and a curse. “Honestly it’s something we struggled with throughout the season, that question of ‘who is the point guard?’ We would have liked some more stability there, but that’s the hand we were dealt”.
Elsewhere, the team’s strength was inside the paint, where they collected a league-leading 36.8 rebounds a game, again led by Suzy Batkovic, the competition’s most prolific defensive rebounder. The Fire also ranked high on assists, with Cloud, Wilson, Batkovic and Murray all recording plenty of dimes. As Brassard explains, the team’s ball movement flowed from the defensive attention Batkovic drew in the low post.
A bread and butter play for Townsville Fire: Batkovic draws a double team and passes to Murray for an open three.
“Suzy was always seeing double and triple teams and I think we did a reasonable job of finding the outside shooters from that”. Yet the team's unselfishness had a downside at times. “Sometimes that (approach) was to our detriment, there were times when we could have been a bit more selfish”.
In particular, coaching staff encouraged sweet-shooting forward Kayla Standish to look for her own shot. “We’ve been working with her on not fading away, on going inside” Brassard says. Standish still led the squad in true shooting percentage and added range to her game, connecting on 19 threes after only making six the previous season.
Kayla Standish was an efficient scorer for the Fire.
Another willing passer, Mia Murray, had a nice season as a canny second-option scorer and good decision maker, while star junior guard Haylee Andrews joined the team as a development player. Brassard had previously coached Andrews in youth teams and has high hopes for the youngster. “I see her as a Tess Madgen type, with those really strong legs, she can get into the key and finish over bigger players”.
Currently in the midst of recruiting and retaining players, the Fire are aware that like every WNBL team, they have to compete with the lure of bigger money on offer in Europe. They’re confident, however, that the environment they have created and the support from the community will be powerful incentives to entice players to sign up for another tilt at the title. “I’m proud of the culture we’ve built here” Brassard says.