Last weekend was a pivotal step in the Mount Gambier Pioneers’ journey to maiden campaigns in the men’s and women’s NBL1 South Conference season. With just weeks remaining before round 1 tips off, all 18 teams converged on Melbourne’s Dandenong Basketball Stadium for the whirlwind NBL1 South Blitz tournament.
Every side played two games each on Saturday and Sunday and it provided the perfect opportunity for respective Pioneers’ men’s and women’s coaches Richard Hill and Matt Sutton to see where they stack up.
The Castec Rural Pioneers men enjoyed an undefeated run with impressive wins over Eltham and Waverly. The OneFortyOne Pioneers women were not quite as lucky on the scoreboard, but still displayed plenty of promise on court during two hard-fought defeats to Frankston and Kilsyth.
Although many competitors did not field full-strength squads, Hill was very pleased with how his players matched up after closely examining all his rivals. “It was nice to have a look around at a few more teams and we played pretty well, so it was a good weekend,” he said.
“It is fair to say the majority of the teams were short of their full complements, but I felt we were in better game shape than most. “The players felt they were in better basketball shape than their opponents, who have more room for improvement and have not worked as hard as us.”
Fresh from a solid 21-point win over the Geelong Supercats the week before, Mount Gambier raced out of the blocks against Eltham. The Pioneers cruised to a 117-81 victory, but Hill said the triumph was marred by an unfortunate injury to new recruit Nik DeSantis.
“The only downside was Nik DeSantis hurting his knee in the first game,” he said. “He had probably been our best player, but went down in the third quarter and we fear the worst. “We will have a better idea after he has a scan.”
Mount Gambier enjoyed another fast start in the Sunday afternoon battle with Albury Wodonga. This time the Pioneers were forced to fight for the victory after their opponents rallied and Hill said the quality game went down to the wire.
“We came out the blocks and got a big early lead, but they (Albury Wodonga) got back in front early in the last quarter,” he said. “With about two minutes to go we were tied up, but our boys did a great job both ends of the floor to pull away at the end.
“Albury was a decent team and it was a high-standard game for the pre-season.” Another big positive for Mount Gambier was a strong team effort with many faces rising to the challenge around the court.
Duom Dawam continues to appear more settled in a Pioneers jersey and was the side’s leading scorer in both games. Tom Kubank also impressed, as did Nick Marshall, Erik Burdon and captain Tom Daly.
With just one more pre-season fixture to play, Hill said preparations are moving in the right direction. “We have improved massively since the Millicent tournament after three more games and training has been pretty hard since we stepped up a notch,” he said.
“From a personnel point of view they (the NBL1 South rivals) are going to get significantly better, while we only have one guy to come in. “I am pleased with where we are at, but we need to keep improving to compete with the better teams.”
The women’s outfit also compiled a lot of valuable information from the two-game hit out. After also trying hard to build a squad and create cohesiveness over four other pre-season games, Sutton said it was nice to see the Pioneers women take it to their future rivals under the same roof.
“It was nice to know we can compete and see what we need to work on,” he said. “It was a good opportunity to do a bit of scouting and see what style the teams are putting out on the court. “The thing we took away was a lot of teams have some pretty good players to add into their group, so it will be a competitive season.”
Mount Gambier was very unlucky not to travel across the border with a victory after pushing its opponents all the way. In the opening game the Pioneers fell just one point short of Frankston and Sutton put the loss down to the defence losing its way in the closing stages.
On Sunday afternoon Mount Gambier engaged in a high-scoring shootout with Kilsyth, but finished two points down after the final buzzer. Despite the two agonising defeats, Sutton said many players enhanced their reputations. “It was a team effort and everyone had their moments,” he said. “Sherrie Calleia was really good and Jasmine Howe, who are our back court at the moment.
“Youngster Kerryl Ousey had a strong game against a solid player who is six foot five. “Kerryl held her own and made some very good plays against a bigger opponent.”
After the weekend’s work, the Pioneers women have now played six pre-season games. After a short break over the Easter weekend, Mount Gambier will play its last on-court hit out in Ballarat on Friday, April 9.
With a full playing squad at his disposal, Sutton said his players are gelling quickly in time for round 1. “We are still trying to work on things like rotations and who will play where, but the game plan is developing in the direction we want it to go,” he said.
“The girls are playing hard for each other and doing the right things, so all eyes are on preparing for Bendigo in round 1. “We will be as ready as we can be.”