SEASON REVIEW: WOLLONGONG ROLLERHAWKS
Wins - 16
Losses – 2
Standing – Champions
2016 result – 13 wins, 5 losses 3rd
The Championship favourites for most of the season, Wollongong began their campaign with the aim to improve on a 2016 bronze medal. They won their first four games and then were victorious in 12 of their next 13 contests before sweeping the playoffs against Kilsyth and Sydney Metro, suceeding by an average margin of 16.5 points. The Rollerhawks were deserving Champs, owning a 9-2 record against fellow finalists with Brett Stibners claiming the Finals MVP, averaging 25 points, 7.5 rebounds and seven assists while Brendan Dowler was named Coach of the Year. Michael Auprince was dominant under the rim all season long, leading the league for rebounds with 12.1 to go along with 18.8 points as one of only three players to average a double-double. Wollongong’s most important feature was their passing though, thanks to Stibners, Luke Pople and Nick Taylor. They all averaged over seven assists per contest, a feat only five players in the competition achieved.
Hardly faltering throughout the season, the Rollerhawks did drop games to Sydney Metro as well as Kilsyth with that defeat coming in the last game of Round 7. They also had the bye in Round 8 which gave a few concerns that their preparations would be interrupted ahead of the finals but those fears proved unfounded.
While Stibners was Wollongong’s leading scorer and Taylor finished as their leader in assists, Pople was a crucial member of the side and they would not have had achieved the ultimate success without him. On the fringe of the national team for Rio and a World Champion from 2014, Pople is developing into a gun after averaging 15.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 7.2 assists this season. He hit 52% from the field (the fourth Rollerhawk to shoot over 50%) and also knocked down five three-pointers while his performance in the gold medal game was outstanding as he tallied 25 points, seven boards and nine assists.
Since 2004, every team that has won an NWBL Championship has gone on to defend their title for at least the next year. That includes Wollongong in 2011-12 and will be the goal heading into next season but they must maintain a high level of play with a few teams below them developing a number of future stars. Keeping their core group together will go a long way to sitting back on top of the ladder in 2017 though with their assist numbers and passing ability far superior to any other club.