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Cheryl Chambers set to lead Southside Flyers to new heights
Since joining the WNBL in the early 90s, the Dandenong Rangers have been a staple of the league. They have made six Grand Final appearances, and claimed the championship three times, with their latest title coming in 2012.
Despite this, things were looking grim this offseason. The team was in a state of turmoil until Gerry Ryan officially took over as the new owner in July.
With the head honcho firmly entrenched, the entire team was retooled. New logo, new uniforms, new name in the silky smooth-sounding Southside Flyers, and new head coach to lead the charge — three-time WNBL coach of the year and 2016/17 WNBL champion, Cheryl Chambers.
"It's really exciting." Chambers said of the upcoming season. "It's a brand new opportunity for everyone, so everyone is coming in fresh.
"Really looking forward to it, really excited, really humbled by being able to coach this team for the first year, and I know the players feel the same, being able to step out in the new colours for the first year.
"Really thankful of Gerry Ryan. He's been involved in women's basketball for a really long time, he's just a special person to be able to continue to help it grow and get bigger. It's very exciting times ahead."
Despite consistent success throughout the decade, the former Rangers suffered a lull over the last two seasons, going from Grand Final participants to playoff absentees.
Chambers doesn't buy into any narrative of a hangover, however.
"I think the past is the past." she explained. "It's a brand new team, so I don't think there's the new or the old. We're a brand new outfit with new players, new everything, so we're just looking forward."
Their roster certainly looks the part, with Rangers MVP and national team member Bec Cole returning for her second season down south. She'll be joined again by 2014 WNBL champion Sara Blicavs, as well as a swarth of new signings, from 2-time WNBL champion and fellow Opal Jenna O'Hea, to 2019 WNBA most improved player, Leilani Mitchell.
"I understand that it's a fantastic league, so our goal is to build a team with a wonderful culture that wants to work together, wants to achieve, wants to do all those things." Chambers said. "That would be our number one aim; getting our culture right, and playing in a way that represents that."
"We've tried to get a team that's a mixture of height, athleticism, experience, introverts, extroverts... Anneli Maley has really impressed me in the preseason. She's a fantastic junior and I think the upside of her is really exciting. She's already exciting to watch and I think that'll continue as it goes on. I think any one of our players can, on any given night, bring something special."
Chambers' mention of personality types certainly piqued my interest, largely because it's something that can go overlooked in building a roster.
"I not only think basketball, but I feel basketball." Chambers elaborated. "Those best teams you have, have a mix of personalities that get along.
"Sometimes, if you have ten extroverts, they're all going to drive each other crazy, so it's pretty important. We've got a few more pieces of the puzzle to go, but certainly, we want to be professional, we want to be hard working, but we want to enjoy the process."
For her part, Chambers has the credentials and the track record to back it all up. She began as a coach in 2003 with the Bulleen Boomers, after a playing career that spanned almost 300 games in the WNBL. She has claimed three Coach of the Year honours, most recently in the 2016/17 campaign with the Sydney Uni Flames, the season where her squad won the WNBL Championship over — as fate would have it — the Dandenong Rangers.
Since 2017, she has also been an assistant coach for an Australian women's national team that is currently standing at #3 in the FIBA world rankings.
"Hopefully my coaching style is player-driven." she said. "It doesn't mean that they make the rules, but certainly it's got to be an environment for all of the stars and the players at a place where we enjoy things. We're going to be as organised, and physically as good as we can be, to compete against these teams."
Narratives are always popping up in the sport of basketball, and one can't help but imagine that this player-driven mindset is derived from her time on the court.
"Look, it was a very long time ago." Chambers replied with a laugh. "But I think, as a coach, and you've played at this level, you understand what it's like, so hopefully I'm fairly sympathetic and I understand what players are going through.
"I hope I make sure I never let that go, because it is different being out there than it is being on the sidelines, a whole different kettle of fish. Hopefully that makes it easier for me to get what I need out of the players, because I understand where they're coming from.
"We want to be a successful team that's around in 10-15 years for the next generation to come through. To do that, you need success on the court, but you certainly need success off the court: you need sponsorship, you need people to come and watch, you need a really good environment and people that want to be engaged and want to be part of it.
"That's part of the mission, because I want to give back to the beautiful sport, and when I leave, hopefully it's in a better position on and off the floor."
Of course, the fans play a huge role in translating those efforts to sustainable success.
"Get behind and support it." Chambers said. "These athletes are fantastic. Every year, they surprise me and they get better and better. For such a small population, we're able to develop these great basketballers, so for young girls and families, definitely get out and be inspired by them.
"Come and support the system so that it's there when they're turning 15, 16, 17 or 21, however old it is that they get into that. I don't think we need to beg to do that because once you come, you love the product. I'm sold on it.
"Once you come, you see how athletic they are, and how good they are, and how inspiring they are. So come along, help us out, and you won't be disappointed."