Having been with the Sydney Uni Flames for most of the past decade, it was perhaps slightly cruel that Katie-Rae Ebzery was not in the side which triumphed in the 2016/17 WNBL season. Instead the Rio Olympian instead spent the season playing for Dynamo Moscow in Russia. However, with that season of European experience under her belt, Ebzery returns to the Flames determined to help bring back-to-back titles to Sydney Uni, and we caught up with the club stalwart to discuss how her time in Russia will help in her return to the WNBL.
“I think I was just ready," shared Ebzery. "Mentally, physically, basketball-wise I was really ready for a different challenge.”
Ebzery’s reasons for taking the plunge and making the move to Russia are pretty clear-- sometimes a change is as good as a holiday.
“I’d been in Australia for quite a few years, playing in the WNBL, then after Rio, I just felt ready to finally have a go at Europe and something a bit different," added Ebzery.
The timing couldn’t have been much better either. Having forced her way into Opals calculations to become an Olympian in Rio in 2016, and with no World Championships or Olympics coming up in the near future, the 2016/17 season proved to be an ideal time for a number of Australian players to try their hand in Europe, with Ebzery just one of many to forego the Australian summer and play overseas.
“I’d been hanging around in Australia for Opals commitments, so that kind of kept me in the country because I wanted to be as visible as possible,” Ebzery explained. “I was sort of on the outer of the program, I needed to do everything I could to put my hand up for selection, so that was sort of holding me back a bit. And we didn’t have anything major coming up in the next 12 months after Rio, so that was definitely a factor.”
While Ebzery had made a name for herself playing off the ball in the WNBL, she found herself thrust into the point guard position in Russia. Nonetheless, she powered ahead, developing her game and eventually ending the season second in assists for Dynamo Moscow, behind only Serbian star Ana Dabovic.
“I think the two spot’s always going to be naturally where I fall into, that’s what I’ve done a majority of my career," Ebzery revealed. "But I’m slowly getting more comfortable with the point guard role. Being in Russia last year, and solely playing that position definitely helped that, and I’ve slowly been exposing myself to bits and pieces in the Opals program. Two’s definitely my natural spot, but one’s feeling a lot better.”
If Ebzery thought that her foray into a full-time point guard role was to be restricted to her time in Russia, she may well have another thing coming. With Sydney Uni Flames’ starting point guard Tahlia Tupaea expected to miss the majority of the WNBL season with a foot injury, Ebzery will no doubt now spend extended time running the offence in Tupaea’s absence. She is under no illusions as to her true role within the line-up.
“It’s obviously disappointing Tahlia’s out, but hopefully I can do her justice and step up and take that experience that I had last year in Russia and really feed off that in the WNBL this year,” the Flames star revealed. “We’ll see how it goes, but I’m certainly hoping to do the position justice and keep it nice and warm for when Tahlia’s ready to come back.”
Although Ebzery has a preliminary final appearance with the Flames in 2014/15 after the Sydney Uni side famously stormed home from 16 points down against Dandenong in an elimination final, fate conspired to see one of the club’s most loved players not with the side when they went all the way last season. Whilst it may not especially sting for Ebzery, it definitely helps fuel her motivation to succeed this season.
“It was funny timing,” Ebzery laughed. “It adds to the drive, and the girls want to go back to back. I’m definitely up for that challenge, and hopefully I can help them out with that.”
However a championship repeat will no doubt be incredibly tough for the Flames. Teams such as the Melbourne Boomers and Adelaide Lightning have stocked up on some of the biggest names in Australian women’s basketball, while the Townsville Fire have yet again put together a strong roster after falling to the Flames in the 2016/17 semi-finals. Those rosters still have to gel though; on the other hand, Ebzery is the only player on the Flames’ squad who wasn’t there for the championship. The effect of that continuity is not lost on the Flames’ combo guard.
“I think it’s massive," added Ebzery. "I’m lucky enough to have played with the majority of the girls before I left anyway, so there’s a lot of continuity there. I think it’s already showed through in how we’ve come together in preseason and that type of thing.
“But I think it’s a big thing, and a lot of the teams have really new rosters, so I think with such a short season and not wanting to drop games too early, the continuity will really be a factor in that.
“The girls already know each other quite well, and I’m slotting in quite easily because I know a lot of them and have played with a lot of them as well, so it’s been a good transition.”
In a way, it’s tough to even call Ebzery a new signing for the Flames. 2017/18 will be her seventh season with the club, and although some things have changed, there remains an air of familiarity. Having played alongside many of the current Flames roster, and having been coached by current Flames coach Cheryl Chambers at various national levels, from juniors to Opals, whilst it may not quite be the same Flames program that was in place two seasons ago, all the pieces remain for Ebzery.
“It’s a bit funny," expressed Ebzery, laughing again. "Obviously I missed out on a whole season but it literally does feel like I’m just coming home and everything’s relatively normal. I guess, there are a couple of new faces that I didn’t know, but the majority of the girls I’ve played with before, so I just slotted back in easily which is nice.
“I have done stuff with Cheryl at junior national level back in the day, so I’m relatively familiar with her and she’s pretty laid back, which makes transitioning into a new team really easy. She’s really supportive, so having her as coach makes it really easy, and she’s really helping me just slide into the group really easily.”
Alongside Rohanee Cox, Ebzery was one of the true leaders of the Flames prior to her departure for Russia. Whilst she remains one of the most experienced players in the squad, as well as one of the most credentialed given her Opals experience, Ebzery is not putting any pressure on herself to reprise that role, nor expecting her teammates to see her as a dominant figure in the locker room. At the end of the day, Ebzery recognises that she is still a player joining an already close-knit group and that she will still need to find her niche in the early days. Fortunately, the Flames have another club stalwart leading them.
“I think Snelly [Belinda Snell] will kind of take on that leadership role, and I’ll help out wherever necessary, but it’s been pretty easy slotting back in,” Ebzery outlined. "I just kind of help out where I can, just taking from my experience. I can offer some advice to some of the younger ones, and help Snelly out as well, and bounce ideas off her and go from there.
“I’m just slotting back in and I guess I’ll find my feet in the team and the group when the season starts.”
Coming into a side that is looking to defend their title, Ebzery’s goals for the WNBL season are obvious, but as an established member of the Opals program, the Newcastle product has her eyes on a couple of events slightly further down the line.
“Commonwealth Games and the World Cup next year are obviously the foreseeable goals," the Rio Olympian further explained. "I love representing my country, it’s definitely something I want to set my sights on. Hopefully I can have a good year in the WNBL, and make some Opals camps early next year and see where it takes me.”
However Ebzery recognises that making the Commonwealth Games side isn’t an automatic ticket to the World Cup, with player availability and the sheer time between the two events potentially combining to see a vastly different squad assembled between April on the Gold Coast and September in Tenerife.
“Because [the Commonwealth Games squad] will be more WNBL based because girls have European commitments, I don’t think it will be a direct relationship with the World Cup side just because of player availability,” Ebzery pondered. “But it’s always good to represent and get some international games experience, so it can only be a positive for anyone trying to make the World Champs team. It’s always good to get international experience, and that helps you in the camps after that, but a team can look pretty different when everyone’s available.”
It’s certainly been a whirlwind 12 months for Katie-Rae Ebzery. With any luck, the next 12 will be just as hectic.