“It was a phenomenal effort to make the grand final” coach Larissa Anderson says. They eventually fell to a Sydney outfit who were not so much a team with momentum as a full-on basketball avalanche, entering the finals on a 12-game winning streak and coming off a comprehensive slaying of defending champions Townsville.
Still, Dandenong weren’t satisfied with being runners up and Anderson feels they had more to give. “I don’t think we put our best foot forward in that series” she says of the 2-0 grand final loss. “We all know we could have done better, but you learn a great deal from the experience”.
Dandenong had a switchy, versatile defence. In these stills from game 2 of the grand final series, Leilani Mitchell is guarded by (from top to bottom) Aimie Clydesdale, Natalie Novosel and Amelia Todhunter.
Injuries had been a subplot for Dandenong all year and raised their head during the finals. The team kept this quiet at the time, but import Ally Malott was again playing through significant injuries, having previously suffered ankle and foot problems and been on a minutes restriction earlier in the season. Before the grand final series, she had suffered a new knee injury which meant she couldn’t push off or get any power.“I really felt for Al” Anderson says. “She had injury after injury. She was in quite a bit of pain, and losing her for that series was a big loss for us, she is a quality player that made a large impact when she was fully fit”.
Steph Cumming continued to be an all-round contributor and tough bucket maker for the team. "She is Dandenong through and through" says Anderson.
If opponents didn’t like playing against Dandenong, one of the main reasons why was the all-round play of Steph Cumming, who finished in the league’s top 20 for points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, three-point percentage and free throw percentage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she was the only player to appear in every one of these lists.
Cumming shared the team’s MVP award with Sara Blicavs, who enjoyed her best WLBL season yet. A self-described “coffee coinnosseur”, Blicavs was like a human triple espresso shot for the Rangers this year, forever energising the team with her all action inside/outside game.
Sara Blicavs takes it to the hoop against finals opponent Asia Taylor. "Her playing ability is endless".
Asked whether Blicavs could one day be MVP of the league, Anderson has no hesitation. “Absolutely” she says. “Her playing ability is endless and she’s only just now realising the damage she can do”. Anderson says Blicavs’ energy and personality were also keys to the team’s success. “She’s always happy, and always happy for her teammates. She’s a phenomenal team player”
The Rangers firepower went well beyond their two leading scorers; apart from Sydney there was no deeper team in the league. Perth coach Andy Stewart felt the greater scoring power of the Rangers bench was the key factor in his team’s semi-final loss to Dandenong. They were a stacked and versatile unit, able to go big or small and bring match-winners off the bench depending on the matchup.
Anderson says the team’s depth made it hard to get rotations right at times, but she notes she would always take a deep squad over a top-heavy one. “We were deep, but at the same time still very young, so different players contributed in different ways each week”.
Two things that worked well for Dandenong in season 2016/17: crisp ball movement and Natalie Novosel shooting threes.
Natalie Novosel was one of the players who gave them such enviable depth, and although knee injuries affected her season, the new acquisition was again one of the competition’s sharpest three-point shooters (44%), made smart passes and consistently drew contact and got to the foul line. Anderson is quick to point out that Novosel was an excellent addition to the squad. “We knew Nat would fit really well with this group and she settled in very quickly. She brings a great deal on and off the floor”
Another beastly defender off the bench was Rosie Fadljevic, who hustled hard and could be used to defend multiple positions. “Every minute she played, she made the most of” Anderson says of Fadljevic. “She constantly made a big basket and came up with a great stop”.
Co-captain Aimie Clydesdale fit the “young” and “speedy” parts of the team’s identity and was easily amongst the most improved players in the competition. Her field goal percentage jumped from 31% to 39% and her assists per game exactly doubled. She also showed signs of developing into a three-point threat, hitting twice as many three-pointers this season as in her previous two years combined.
AImie Clydesdale, pictured here in Dandenong's SEABL team back in 2013, had her best ever year for the Rangers.
“I could not be more proud of Aimie’s improvement” Anderson says. “When I first came in, I knew Aimie had it in her to be one of the most prominent point guards in the league, the way she holds the team together and thinks on her feet”.
At the other end of the positional chart were bigs Jacinta Kennedy and Lauren Scherf. Still only 21, Scherf proved a good shot blocker and rates as one of Australia’s most promising centres. She could not have hoped for a better mentor than Jacinta Kennedy, who was again a revelation in her final year of a decorated career.
For anyone outside the Dandenong setup, the continued productivity of Kennedy, who returned to top-level basketball in 2015/16 after a break of nine years, was remarkable, but it was no surprise to those who knew her well. “I had no doubts she would have an impact, she’s just an amazing person” Anderson says. “She just picked up where she left off”.
Having coached Kennedy in the Dandenong Rangers SEABL team, Anderson convinced her to return to the top flight WNBL again. “I was sure she was up to it physically, it was more about the commitment it would take having a family and at the time her husband was still overseas. Thankfully she was able to make it work”.
Another player Anderson coached at SEABL level, Amelia Todhunter, certainly did her share of annoying opponents and was a huge part of the grand final run, routinely being given major defensive assignments, picking up steals (46, third in league) and generally harassing opposing scorers and point guards.
Todhunter was one of many former Dandenong Rangers Anderson has brought back into the fold. She also helped recruit Rosie Fadljevic, Sara Blicavs and Steph Cumming, who she describes as “Dandenong through and through” back to the club. Thrown in mainstay Aimie Clydesdale, who has never played a minute for a rival club at Big V, SEABL or WNBL level, and the Rangers have remarkable continuity.
Dandenong have made a point of bringing juniors and former players back to the club. This includes Steph Cumming, pictured here with Aimie Clydesdale, after the team's 2011/2012 grand final win.
“I’ve got a lot of history with those players” Anderson says of the returning group. “They know exactly what I want from them. It’s really special to have that connection, but it’s also about creating an exciting new journey with a great group we have assembled ”.
Similarly, Jacinta Kennedy, a revered figure at the club, will not be lost to the program as she moves into a new career as a teacher. She will be in around in some capacity, perhaps just as the team’s most high-profile fan. “We’re not letting her go anywhere” Anderson laughs.