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Opinion

Southside Flyers WNBL season preview

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3rd December, 2021
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In the 2019-20 season, Jayco Caravans owner Gerry Ryan took over the Dandenong Rangers licence and rebranded them as the Southside Flyers. The Rangers’ green was replaced with teal.

In two seasons as the Flyers, they have won two minor premierships. In 2019-20, the Flyers lost a thrilling WNBL grand final series to the University of Canberra Capitals two games to nil, but with a total losing margin of only five points.

In the 2020 season, which was played in a hub in north Queensland and was completed before Christmas, the Flyers had two double-digit victories over the Townsville Fire in the finals series to be crowned WNBL champions.

Departures
One of the big losses for the Flyers is somewhat controversial Australian Opals star Liz Cambage. Cambage topped the league in points per game (23.5) and blocks per game (1.7) as well as averaging 8.8 rebounds per game.

Grand final Most Valuable Player (MVP), experienced guard Leilani Mitchell, who scored 31 points and had five assists in the grand final and led the league with 6.7 assists per game, has headed down the Calder Freeway to join the Bendigo Spirit.

Blicavs squared also will not be happening for the Flyers this season. Steph Blicavs recently announced that Arlo is going to become a big brother in April. Steph is pregnant and expecting her second child.

Rebecca Pizzey (Sydney Uni Flames), dual-code star Monique Conti and Amy O’Neill also will not return to the Flyers.

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Returning players
Opals captain Jenna O’Hea has played in the WNBA and France and brings experience, class and composure to the Flyers’ line-up. O’Hea is versatile and is just at home taking the ball to the basket as she is shooting three pointers. O’Hea has been named in the All-WNBL first team six times.

Watch for the athleticism of Sara Blicavs as she drives the ball to the basket. Blicavs isn’t alone in her family when it comes to athleticism. She has followed in the footsteps of both her mother and father, who both represented Australia in basketball, and her brother Mark is two-time Geelong best and fairest winner in the AFL. Blicavs deservedly received a late call-up to the Opals Tokyo Olympic squad to replace Flyers’ championship teammate Cambage, when Cambage withdrew a week or two out from the Olympics. Blicavs was also named in last season’s All-WNBL second team.

Since Bec Cole moved to Dandenong Stadium her game has gone to a new level. Cole was named in the All-WNBL team in 2018-19 and was also named the Dandenong Rangers MVP in 2018-19. Cole has played an important role with the Australian 3×3 team and was named in an extended Opals squad in the lead-up to the Olympics. Cole averaged 15.5 points per game, 4.3 assists per game and 1.7 steals per game as well as shooting at 58 per cent from the field and 54.3 per cent from beyond the arc in the Flyers’ championship season.

Rebecca Cole

(Photo by James Worsfold/Getty Images)

Guard Aimie Rocci (nee Clydesdale) was a member of the Dandenong Rangers championship team in 2011-12 and the Southside Flyers championship team last season. Rocci has also played in WNBL grand finals series in 2016-17 with the Rangers, in 2018-19 with the Adelaide Lightning and in 2019-20 with the Flyers. One of the highlights of 2019-20 for Rocci that stands out is a clutch three pointer she made late in a game with the Perth Lynx at Dandenong Stadium. The three-pointer helped the Flyers take the game to overtime and the Flyers ended up winning the game 97-93. Hopefully, she can provide similar highlights for Flyers fans to see in person when WNBL games return to Melbourne. Rocci also won the Flyers’ Val Ryan Players Player Award in 2019-20.

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Former Opal Rachel Jarry will also return for the Flyers. Jarry has won bronze medals for the Opals at the 2012 Olympic Games and 2014 World Championships, a WNBA championship and now two WNBL championships. Jarry is usually the player chasing after loose balls and will bring her tenacity to the defensive end of the court. Jarry is also a police officer.

Saraid Taylor and Taylah Giliam were both part of the Flyers’ championship squad in the hub season. Taylor has played with Frankston Blues in NBL1 in 2019 averaging 10.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game and in 2021 averaging 7.6 points and 6.13 rebounds per game. Giliam has played for both the Rangers and Flyers in the WNBL. Warragul product Giliam played for the Dandenong Rangers in NBL1 2019 and in NBL1 South 2021 Giliam averaged 13.46 points, 2.86 assists and 3.66 rebounds per game playing with Taylor at the Blues. Giliam is a speedy guard.

Recruits
You might think that the loss of Liz Cambage leaves a giant hole in the team. Well, the Flyers have done a great job in trying to fill that hole by recruiting Abby Bishop. Bishop won the WNBL 2014-15 MVP award and was the only player not named Suzy Batkovic to win the award between the 2011-12 and 2017-18 seasons. Bishop is also a two-time WNBL All-Star first team member. Bishop is a three-time WNBL champion with the University of Canberra Capitals and a WNBA champion with the Seattle Storm. Bishop has won bronze medals for the Opals at the 2012 London Olympics and the 2019 FIBA Women’s Asia Cup. Bishop has also played in France, Hungary and Italy.

Basketball going through the net

Just when you thought that there wouldn’t be a pair of sister-in-laws at the Flyers, Southside go and recruit Maddison Rocci. Rocci is Aimie’s sister-in-law. Rocci has won two WNBL championships with the University of Canberra Capitals and won the Capitals’ 2020 MVP award. Rocci was top ten in scoring in the WNBL in 2020 for scoring, assists and steals. Rocci was also named in the Opals’ squad for the 2021 FIBA Women’s Asia Cup but had to withdraw through injury.

Kristy Wallace won a bronze medal for the Opals at the 2021 FIBA Women’s Asia Cup. Wallace’s best game was against China where she scored 14 points. Wallace had a successful college career with Baylor University. In her senior year, Wallace was named in the All Big 12 Conference Team of the Year and All Defensive Team. Wallace has previously recovered from ACL injuries suffered playing with Baylor and on her return with the University of Canberra Capitals in the WNBL. In the interrupted 2021 NBL1 South season, Wallace averaged 14.2 points and 3.2 rebounds per game in five games for the Melbourne Tigers.

Guard Kate Gaze played college basketball for the St Mary’s Gaels. Gaze played in back-to-back WNBL championships with the Fire in 2014-15 and 2015-16. Gaze also played for the Fire in last season’s WNBL grand final against the Flyers. Gaze has also played in the WNBL with the AIS and the Capitals. Gaze returns home to Melbourne to join the Flyers. Gaze is the cousin of Australian Boomers legend Andrew Gaze.

Emilee Whittle-Harmon is a forward/centre, who joined the Dandenong Rangers for the 2021 NBL1 South season after stints with Nunawading, Launceston and Albury/Wodonga. Whittle-Harmon averaged 21.81 points and 8.27 rebounds per game for the Rangers. Whittle-Harmon is also the Basketball Development Coordinator for the Dandenong Basketball Association after holding similar roles with Wyndham Basketball and Wodonga Basketball. Whittle-Harmon hails from Ohio where she played college basketball for the Ohio State Buckeyes and she has previously played professionally in Ireland.

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wo hands compete for a basketball at tip off

(Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Chelsea D’Angelo spent a number of years with the Melbourne Boomers but unfortunately missed the 2020 season after tearing her Achilles tendon. D’Angelo spent the last NBL1 South season with Saraid Taylor and Taylah Giliam at the Frankston Blues. D’Angelo averaged eight points, four assists and six rebounds per game for Frankston.

Victorian Taylah Simmons has spent time in the USA playing for Wagner College and Southeastern University. In her final year at Southeastern, Simmons averaged 24 points and more than seven rebounds per game. Simmons trained with the Flyers prior to the Flyers moving into the hub last season. In 2021, playing for the Cockburn Cougars in NBL1 West, Simmons averaged 15.57 points, 3.73 assists and 6.26 rebounds per game.

Prediction
After winning the championship last season, I would expect the Flyers to feel the loss of Liz Cambage and Leilani Mitchell. However, the Flyers have done a brilliant job recruiting Abby Bishop, Maddison Rocci and Kristy Wallace to fill those gaps. With the experience and talent in the squad it is well worth the trip to Dandenong Stadium. The Flyers will again be there at the pointy end of the season, and I predict them to go back-to-back.

Predicted finish: first.

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