Senators look to make noise despite tough preparation
THE preparation for the 2017 SBL season might have been far from ideal for the Stirling Senators, but by no means does that mean that coach Mike Ellis isn't looking to still make an impact and not just make up the numbers.
Ellis took over as coach at Stirling last year taking the team to the playoffs from sixth position at the end of the regular season.
That was on the back of a versatile frontcourt including AJ Majstrovich, Kyle Lindbergh and Cody Ellis with youngsters Ashley Litterick, Jayden Coburn and Jay Thwaites standing up along with Corban Wroe, and Austin Bruton and Tom Witts providing the veteran guidance.
That was all a pretty good mix and it was only the Willetton Tigers that put an end to their season in the quarter finals. But Ellis finished 2016 feeling as though there was little need to look to change too much and the makings were there for a successful group.
Even when Majstrovich decided to retire, Ellis was looking forward to having Lindbergh and Cody Ellis with the addition of Rhys Vague with Litterick and Coburn there to take the next step, Wroe to have developed further at the Perth Wildcats and then with Bruton and Witts still around.
However, with the Wildcats and Illawarra Hawks making the NBL grand final, it meant that there was no sign of Wroe, Ellis and new signing Rhys Vague at the Senators in the lead up to this week with the season to start on Friday night against the Perry Lakes Hawks at Bendat Basketball Centre.
Then the real blow came with Lindbergh departing to accept a role as an athletic director back in the United States. After two strong years with the Senators, Ellis was banking on even more production from him in 2017.
That has left little time for Ellis to find a replacement for the start of the season. While the preparation hasn’t been ideal heading into Round 1, Ellis still feels the Senators can make their mark on this SBL season particularly if Litterick and Coburn continue to grow.
"It's not the ideal preparation but I was happy with our Blitz where we performed well and blooded a lot of the young kids which will be good for us. Without four of our starters, that does leave a bit of a hole in what you're doing," Ellis said.
"It was pleasing that Ash stepped up really well in the pre-season but Jayden had a knee op so that has put him a little bit behind the eight ball as well. He's not back to where he should be at this stage, but he is heading in the right direction.
"We expect them to build on what they did last year for us and we'll need them to. We need some of the other younger guys to get some more confident about being able to play at SBL level as well.
"That's our plan and whilst we are developing, we are still doing that as part of our plan to make some noise in the SBL. That's what we're there for, we aren’t there to make up the numbers."
Ellis isn’t hiding behind the fact that he hasn’t had the preparation with the Senators he would have liked and that it's not ideal to be still looking for an import.
But he wants to get someone who fits what the team needs and that is of the right character to fit in with the club.
"We're a little bit behind the eight ball to be honest. Three of our starters were tied up with the NBL grand final so we hadn’t see hide nor hare of those guys, which is obviously understandable. Then we still have an import spot that we haven’t actually filled yet," he said.
"We have to try and find another import still and we've had a few guys who've been an option but have taken other gigs. We don’t have the sort of money that some people are throwing around so it can be a bit difficult on short notice, but we're working on it.
"We want a big. Kyle did fit that idea of having a mobile frontline so we are happy to find someone along those lines, but if we can find someone a bit bigger we'd do that too and change what we do a little bit.
"We need someone who can bang with the big guys around the league so that's kind of he person we're looking for, but we also want to make sure they are good guys and they will fit in with the team ethos. That's just as important for us as being a good player is because we'd need them to be a mentor to our young group because if you take out Aussie and Tom, we are very young."
Lindbergh was someone that Ellis was tremendously impressed with on and off the court last year, and he fit the bill as a versatile big that he was after his group perfectly.
While disappointed that he has returned home, the fact that he has done so to further his career and give up his professional basketball career means that there's very little he could do about it.
"He was going to come back but he has picked up a really good job in the States and he is actually giving up his basketball career for his work. I totally understand as disappointing as it is from our perspective because he's a great guy and player," Ellis said.
"He fitted in beautifully to our team and worked in really well with the guys, and got along with them. He was a really handy acquisition for us last year and I thought he gave us a hell of a lot more last year than the season before, and I was expecting more again this year.
"But it's the guy's livelihood and you have to understand that. He has picked up an athletic director's job in a high school in the States and they are as rare as hen's teeth. Unfortunately for us he had to take that opportunity but it's great for him and he deserves it."
Majstrovich returned to the SBL last year and gave the Senators some terrific minutes and production as another versatile big man alongside Litterick, Lindbergh and Cody Ellis.
There's not much the coach could do about him retiring but Ellis was looking forward to welcoming back Nik Iliadis. However, when it quickly became evident he couldn’t give 100 per cent it was best for both parties that they not pursue a comeback.
"AJ has retired as well, his body just couldn’t handle it anymore and that's disappointing. We were going to have Nik Iliadis back which we were looking forward to, but unfortunately Nik's recovery has been a little bit slower than he expected and after a third knee recon, his heart wasn’t probably fully into it," he said.
"He's got a bit of a music career that's taken off as well so he probably didn’t have that desire and passion to get back to play in the SBL because it takes a lot of work and you can't just show up and play. We are very disappointed that Nik won't be back but I absolutely respect that he has made the decision and I'd rather him do it this way instead of coming back and not giving his all."
Despite the things that have gone wrong, a group consisting of Vague, Ellis, Wroe, Litterick, Coburn, Bruton, Witts and an import should be more than competitive.
Ellis hopes that Vague and Wroe will be there for Round 1 against the Hawks but if Cody feels like he needs some more time after his NBL season with the Hawks, he will understand.
"I'm hoping to get one session in before our first game with Rhys and Corban which will be really handy. As for Cody, he has been on a pretty long stretch and he finished the grand final and then got crook as a dog as you generally do," Ellis said.
"Whether or not he'll be ready for Game 1 or if he needs an extra week to take some time off, I'd understand that. He's played 12 months right around going from the SBL into the NBL last year so he may just need an extra week or two to recuperate a little bit before he gets back into it. We'll just play that by ear."
Photo by Vikki Hile