Lightning strikes twice: the return of Laura Hodges

It's game 2 of the 2019 WNBL Finals. The hometown Adelaide Lightning are set to inbound, down 72-73 to the University of Canberra Capitals with 5.5 seconds left on the clock and on the threshold of seeing their championship dreams go up in smoke. The tension at Titanium Security Arena is so palpable, you can practically feel a collective sweat.

Lightning co-captain Nicole Seekamp heaves the ball to Lauren Nicholson, then makes a beeline towards the basket. Nicholson weaves through defenders, miraculously keeping the ball in her possession despite the tangle of arms surrounding her.

Time has almost run out. Capitals guard Kia Nurse closes in on Nicholson to seal the deal, leaving the briefest window for Seekamp to roam free in the key. Nicholson sends the rock her way, and Seekamp springs to catch it, pivoting in midair and nailing a buzzer beater to even the series.

The roar from the crowd is deafening, but there is perhaps none among them more thrilled than one of the Lightning's most ardent lifelong fans. This was the position Laura Hodges found herself in this past February, supporting her team from the sidelines alongside her baby daughter Ava, who she had welcomed into the world the previous October.

Hodges missed the entirety of the 2018/19 season to prepare for parenthood, and it's safe to say that the twelve months since then have been an absolute blur.

"It's obviously a very exciting time for my husband and I," Hodges explained to the Pick and Roll. "Ava is almost one now! I don't really know where the year's gone, but she's lots of fun and very energetic.

"She's tracking to be quite a tall little girl. Well, not really little, she's definitely growing, growing, growing very fast."

For Hodges, the goal was to return for her thirteenth WNBL season, and reunite with her hometown Adelaide Lightning. At long last, she's back on the court and ready to contribute as she prepares for the season opener on Friday against the Sydney Uni Flames.

"It's been great being part of a team environment again." Hodges explained. "I started playing basketball when I was 10, I'm 35 now.

"It's amazing to be around the younger girls that have lots of energy, and then obviously we've got a really experienced group, people like Nat Hurst and Steph Talbot, who's back with Adelaide.

"I got to play with [Talbot] in Adelaide in previous years, and also with the Opals, so it's great to have her back. And then we've got Lauren Nicholson and Nicole Seekamp, who've been doing a great job with the Opals as well. It's a really good group, and it's fun to be a part of it."

Ultimately, Adelaide would fall short in that aforementioned finals series, succumbing to the Capitals in the clincher, in front of a raucous ACT crowd. Despite this, Hodges was able to experience the game and support the team through a fresh perspective.

"I really enjoyed it." Hodges said of following the team last season. "It was great that I could come out and watch the games, being a new mum, and the fact that the Lightning were doing so well.

"I've followed the Lightning since I was a young girl, being an Adelaide girl myself, so I've always enjoyed coming out to watch them play. It was a great experience to be able to come and just see it as a spectator and enjoy great basketball.

"That Finals series versus Canberra, especially those first two games, were incredible. That second game here at Titanium Arena was just unbelievable, and I haven't seen a crowd like that for the Lightning for many, many years.

"Hopefully this year, we can go one better."

The Lightning are helped by a degree of continuity — something of a rare commodity in the modern WNBL — with several players returning from last season's roster.

"We've got a great group of girls that are around from last year." Hodges gushed. "There's probably six of the girls that are still around, four or five of the core girls, obviously losing a few as well.

"With any successful team, it's great to have that cohesion. Knowing each other's tendencies on the court and getting used to those people.

"But at the same time in women's basketball these days, a lot of people are playing in Europe, they're playing over in the WNBA, and players have been moving around a lot more in the WNBL.

"So I think people are getting used to coming in and having to try and get cohesion really quickly. [Lightning head coach] Chris Lucas is really good at doing that, bringing us together with the way he trains the team and getting them into game form pretty quickly.

"Hopefully, it's a successful season."

In what has been a trend around the league, the preseason has provided a fairly unclear impression of the Lightning's potential, a fact that has not been lost on the players.

"I think that it's been such a short and slightly disrupted preseason, with three of the girls with the Opals, and then our imports who are in the WNBA coming in later." Hodges explained. "But I think that everyone wants to get it started, and it feels like it's been a while since that last game.

"It'll be great to get all the games going this weekend, and it's great to have women's basketball back going in Australia."

Beyond sifting through the tea leaves of the preseason, the strengths of this Adelaide squad are quickly apparent, and Hodges has seen some promising skillsets.

"I think the Lightning are certainly a team that is very mobile, and plays quickly." she said. "The way that Lauren Nicholson and Steph Talbot can run the floor; they're such athletic guards. Then you've got two very mobile bigs in Crystal Langhorne and Brianna Turner, that speed is going to be a big thing."

Hodges went on to pinpoint Talbot in particular as being a crucial component to the fortunes of the Lightning for the 2019/20 campaign.

"I think that she's really going to step up, being back in her home state, I think she's someone who will have a great season." Hodges opined. "The way that she plays with her athleticism, she can play bigger, she can play smaller, and she's really worked on her outside shot from the 3-point line.

"She's certainly someone to look out for, but there's just so many in our group, which we're very lucky to have. She's one that springs to mind straight away."

For Hodges, returning to the Lightning will be unlike any other year in her career, but she is welcoming the challenge.

"My role is going to be very different than what it was before, and I'm excited about that." she said. "In the past, I've always had a role in the WNBL where I've had to be one of those main players, but now I'm certainly going to be a role player, and I think that is great for me.

"I've had to do that in the past with the Opals, and it's a role that some players find hard to do, playing limited minutes here and there.

"I could step up and play more if I'm needed to, but at this stage, this is definitely my role, and Chris and I have had a good chat about that. I think with my experience, that I can help off the bench. We've got some really young players that are coming through the WNBL, so hopefully I can work with them and give them a little bit of wisdom over the long career that I've had."

That career has certainly been one filled with highlights. Since debuting in the WNBL with the Australian Institute of Sport in 2000, Hodges has played integral roles both locally and abroad, and collected medals with the women's national team in three Olympic events.

For her, being a part of the WNBL's 40th season allows her to carry on the legacy of the women who shaped Australian basketball.

"It's pretty amazing that it's 40 years of the WNBL." Hodges exclaimed. "When I was younger, I used to watch the likes Trish Fallon, Robyn Maher and Michele Timms. They really paved the way and now it's the next generation that's coming through.

"I think it's really important, and I don't believe that I would have had the career I've had if I didn't have the role models to look up to, like in Adelaide — Rachel Sporn and Jae Kingi, Michelle Brogan.

"The reason why I continue to try to pursue basketball and not another sport is because I used to come out and watch the Lightning every home game. I'd get upset if my parents didn't take me!

"I was lucky enough to then play with my idol, Rachel Sporn, at my first Olympics in 2004. She was 36, and I was only a 20 year old, so it's amazing how things can turn around."

Now, Hodges finds herself in a position just like Sporn all those years ago; a proud mother off the court and a reliable veteran on it, set to help her team contend for its sixth championship.

"I think young kids should come out and learn, and watch how female athletes handle themselves on and off the court, it's really important for their future, to learn from them as they grow up." she said. "Hopefully one day, Ava will have role models that she can look up to."

The Adelaide Lightning's path back to the finals begins on Friday when they host the Sydney Uni Flames. Make sure to check out the full fixture for the 2019/20 WNBL season.