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NBL1 South 2021: The season that wasn’t
Time slowly ticks away for teams and players everywhere, and the NBL1 South is no exception.
No one can argue against the success of the NBL1.
The platform the league has given its players and teams around the country, is crucial to the continual growth of Australian basketball. While thousands have already watched the coronation of the champions from the NBL1 West, Central and North, the league’s largest, and perhaps most talented conference, the South, will go without a champion, MVP or All-Star Five for the second consecutive year.
The remainder of the COVID-19 interrupted season was cancelled at the beginning of September, just weeks after the cancellation of the NBL1 national championships were announced. While not unexpected, the news came as a huge blow to the league’s players, many of whom had been waiting over 12 months to get back on the court and compete in one of Australia’s premier basketball competitions.
For 2019 NBL1 Finals MVP Dain Swetalla, the loss of a second chance for his side to defend its inaugural NBL1 title was deflating, especially as the core of his Nunawading Spectres continues to move through the twilight of their careers.
Credit: Ian Knight
Coming into the year, Swetalla and the Spectres were eager to prove they were still capable of finishing atop the league. “We were hungry,” Swetalla shared. “We had a group of guys with a shared mentality. As a team, we were ready for the chance to defend our title. We knew the league had gotten a lot better and our whole group were ready to prove themselves.”
That hunger quickly turned to frustration, as the league struggled to gain momentum, with frequent stoppages as Victoria battled through changing COVID-19 restrictions.
The stoppages left all teams in a state of limbo, stuck without the opportunity to train together and continue developing as a team as the season continued.
For Leah Santomaggio of the Knox Raiders, the breaks were difficult, both physically and mentally. “Basketball is such a team sport, so to be separated from your team for such a long time wasn’t easy,” she explained. “I found it really difficult initially to motivate myself to keep working during the lockdowns.”
Credit: Ian Knight
Though physically separated from her teammates, the Raiders group wouldn’t let each other get down for long, constantly pushing each other while at home through daily challenges and Zoom fitness sessions to stay together. When games could be played, Knox performed like one of the best teams in the country, beating its opponents by an average margin of 20 points and finishing the season with a league-best 10-2 record.
While proud of what her side was able to produce, Santomaggio can’t help but wonder what could have been had the season not been called off. “It’s unfortunate, but the league made the right call to end the season… It’s just disappointing because we were connecting so well as a group on and off the court.
“It’s been very hard to let it sink in that we won’t play any more games this year, because we believed we were one of the best teams in the country. Who knows if we’ll be able to bring this group back next year, we may never get to fully show what this team is capable of.”
Also feeling the sting of the ‘what if’ was Frankston’s Dillon Stith, who was hoping to continue his championship-winning ways with the Blues in 2021. A two-time Big V MVP and 2019 Big V champion, Stith says he saw the same championship potential in his teammates he had seen in professional organisations, like Melbourne United, where he played as an injury replacement for Casey Prather in the NBL’s 2019-20 season.
“As a group, we knew nothing was promised, and we had to make the most of it and enjoy the process,” Stith said. “We had the confidence that we had the ability to win a championship, we just had to believe in each other and showcase our skills.”
Credit: Daniel Spangler
The Blues leaned on each other for support, on the court, and at home when play was halted by lockdowns and shifting COVID restrictions. They stayed ready, making sure if play were to resume on a Saturday, the group would be ready on Friday.
When play was stopped following Round 17, Frankston had shown itself to be a powerhouse of the competition, sitting on a league-best 11 wins while boasting the highest percentage and second highest scoring offence. Their play was such that Stith and his teammates couldn’t help but look ahead to what they could do in the finals, and potentially in a national championship series.
“When we put it all together, we were in the top few teams in the country. We wanted that title of the first NBL1 national champions - you’d be a fool to not want that. It’s a special opportunity. It’s been frustrating as a competitor to see other champions being crowned. There’s a part of it that feels selfish, because I know we could have beaten these teams, but it is what it is.”
While Stith and the Blues could have potentially chased the title of best team in the country, the argument of best player in the nation was being asked by a WNBL star out of Launceston.
Already up against the logistical nightmare that was required cross border travel between Victoria and South Australia from Tasmania, Keely Froling blew opponents away en route to perhaps the most dominant season in NBL1/SEABL women’s history. Opening her 2021 campaign with a 42 point, 22 rebound victory against Hobart, Froling went on to break the NBL1 scoring record with a 52 point, 26 rebound performance, before finishing the season as the clear MVP stand out, with averages of 31 points and 15 rebounds.
Credit: Kozy Film
Throughout the breaks in the season, Froling and her teammates kept working, scrimmaging against U16 and U18 boys to stay ready for a return to play - ready for that chance to push towards a title, and possible individual accomplishments coming their way. “That’s what kept us going,” Froling said. “We were thankful that we could continue to practice together, but we pushed hard to stay ready for two months so we would be ready when play returned.”
Play didn’t return.
Froling will not receive any award.
There will be no trophy, no accolades, and no $1,000 Foot Locker vouchers.
There will only be the lingering, and prevailing thought of ‘what if?’
For Froling, a spot in the Opals squad resulting from her historic play, and the looming WNBL season, provide some sense that the work was well worth it. However for others, basketball is simply gone, and how quickly it will return remains to be seen.
For some players, this may have been it. This may have been their chance at playing with these teammates for the last time. For Swetalla, the thought that this could have been the last time suiting up next to Spectres legend and long-time frontcourt partner Simon Conn is a difficult one. “I feel for him, he has given so much to this club, this game and to his craft. To see his career potentially winding down like this, without the chance to really go down swinging isn’t fair.” Conn, 38, has been with Nunawading since 2011, and played an instrumental role in delivering the club its NBL1 title in 2019. While age may stop some from returning, opportunity may stop others.
Having had two seasons ended by the COVID environment in Victoria, some players believe others may decide to play elsewhere, where playing time is potentially more stable. The possibility is not beyond reason, as players search for stability, and teams wrestle with finances. “Our league may not be as strong as it has been because players are looking for less uncertainty, which is a shame,” Santomaggio explained. “Who knows if teams will even be able to afford to bring their players back?”
Stith however, is confident the league will return to form in 2022, citing the strength of Melbourne as a worldwide basketball hub as a major factor moving forward. “When we reach whatever our new normal will be, Melbourne is still the home of a lot of balls bouncing down the street, and the home of some powerhouse clubs in the country.
“When one of those clubs comes knocking, it’d be hard for an import or a local player to say no to the opportunity. The NBL1 is always going to help create pathways, especially towards the NBL.”
As we sit here today, it’s impossible to know what will become of the NBL1 South in 2022. Championship-caliber teams endure the frustrating wait, for an opportunity to showcase their skills, while players watch as their careers slowly slip away. All we can do as basketball fans, is hold onto hope that we will get to see these talented athletes on the court once again.