Parsons beaming over Cougars' toughness, depth heading into finals
THE Cockburn Cougars have some top shelf talent like Marcus Goode, Najee Lane and Gavin Field but it's the toughness and competitiveness of the likes of Sheldon McIntyre, Rhett Della and Travis Hayto that has coach Matt Parsons most proud heading into the 2016 SBL finals.
Winning a minor premiership seemed a long way off when Parsons took over as coach of the Cougars heading into 2015. The majority of the championship winning team from 2012 was gone and it appeared a rebuilding process was what he had to undertake.
But Cockburn exceeded all expectations in 2015 finishing the regular season in fourth spot before losing a strongly fought quarter-final series with the Rockingham Flames with Matt Parsons named Coach of the Year.
The Cougars then retooled a little coming into 2016 but keeping Najee Lane and Gavin Field was crucial while adding big man Marcus Goode and the experience of Rhett Della and Daniel Thomas along with Jake Harris, Jaarod Holmes, Travis Hayto and Jakob Knight has been the icing on the cake.
The result has been an outstanding season by the Cougars with them securing top spot last Friday night with a 123-120 victory over the defending champion Joondalup in a tremendous contest at Wally Hagan Stadium.
Cockburn finished with a 22-4 record ahead of a quarter-final match up with the Perry Lakes Hawks starting Saturday night back on their home floor.
The Cougars are proud to have finished on top but Parsons knows that now counts for little as the finals get underway. After being eliminated in the first round last year, it's something they will be out to make sure doesn’t happen again and the Hawks are their sole focus right now.
"We haven’t mentioned last year as a group or as the coaching staff yet, but we will. We addressed that at the end of last year and we added depth for this moment, but it's very important we are ready for it. The job's not done," Parsons said.
"We have had a fun year and we've achieved something that no one at the beginning of this season, or last week, would have thought by being minor premiers. But we are and we are happy to be, but it's now a case of reassessing our goal and that has to be getting through the first round.
"The next goal is the second round and there are some really tough teams, that top eight is tough. We will have to be up every night from here and if we are then we're a good chance to win."
Anyone who witnessed Cockburn's win over Joondalup last Friday night would have no doubt that it was the most intense and exciting game of the SBL season, and that it would make for quite the grand final rematch.
While Parsons would like to take on the defending champions again, he knows such thoughts have to be saved for dreams right now with two rounds of the playoffs to go before that could eventuate.
"It would be an amazing grand final based on that game but we now have to go up against Perry Lakes," he said.
"They beat us a couple of weeks ago and they match up really well against us so we have a tough job, and our immediate focus is on them and we don’t want to look any further than that.
"But in those shower dreams you have it would be really nice to be there for the grand final and if it's the quality like we saw last week against the Wolves it would put bums on seats and be a quality game."
Not only was last Friday a big night for the Cougars to secure top spot, but it was also the celebration of the 200th game of 2012 championship winning vice-captain Sheldon McIntyre.
He made his return from injury on the night after it began with him being honoured with his life membership of Cockburn by sister, and fellow 200-plus game player of the club Fleur. He came out and delivered a trademark strong performance and Parsons expected nothing else.
"Sheldon is that guy you would want your kid to play like on a basketball court. He epitomises everything that we want to do. He sacrifices his own game, he sacrifices his body and he's always in the right position," Parsons said.
"Nothing is too hard for him and if anyone needs helps Sheldon McIntyre is there. He just sets that level of physicality that we need, and he is undersized going up against bigger guys and he does it well. He can also play well against the guards and he's just a tough kid."
The Cougars have certainly benefited from some selective recruiting this season and the impact of the experienced Rhett Della has been marked. He had another big performance against the Wolves with 24 points and Parsons has been delighted to pick him up from the Mandurah Magic.
"He is very much in that same mould as Sheldon. I haven’t heard a negative comment out of Rhett all year, he has bought into the program and he hasn’t missed a training session all year. But he can play. He is smart, he is active, he is physical and he has been huge for us this year," he said.
"We identified him last year and played a game against Mandurah when Rhett Della guarded Bobby, and I've never seen Bobby so frustrated at a defender.
"I didn’t forget that and when the chance was there to sign Rhett, and there was a romantic side to try and bring him back to Cockburn, I knew that he could offer so much to our program and that's how it has turned out."
It hasn’t been as if the Cougars have been without injury troubles either with Field, Thomas and McIntyre having missed games late in the season.
But that has presented opportunities for others including guard Travis Hayto who has grabbed his chance and now has a quarter-final series against his old Perry Lakes team to look forward to. He has hit 27 points his last three games in the best stretch of his career.
"Travis is cut from that same mould as Sheldon McIntyre is. He plays selfless basketball and he will sacrifice anything that he's got the opportunity to do," Parsons said.
"Most of the time it's at the defensive end and he's long, he's mobile and he is very coachable. He deserves the opportunity and he is a workhorse. We aren’t the most overly skilled team but we do work together and I think it shows."
Parsons was also delighted to see his captain Field return to his best last Friday with 33 points following a calf injury and he knows how valuable he is to his team if he doesn’t realise those outside the club don't necessarily.
"There has been a lot of media around the last few weeks but one of the things that has gone under the radar was the fact that Gavin Field was out," he said.
"A lot of people forget he was runner-up MVP last year and he is a quality basketball player. He complements what we've been able to achieve and the playing style that we have. We need him up and about, and I'm really happy to see him back playing at that level."
The only downside of last Friday's win over Joondalup was Thomas going down early with a hamstring injury in his first game back, but Parsons hopes it's not as bad as it initially appeared.
"We could have gone with him again last week but the big picture came into it and we didn’t want to risk it," Parsons said.
"I've seen it before when a little niggle or tweak can become worse if you push it, so we decided to sit him and then re-evaluate it during the week. Hopefully we got there early enough that he only misses a week or two at the worst, and at best he plays this week."
Article by Chris Pike
Photos by Mick Cronin