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Opinion

Bendigo Spirit WNBL season preview

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4th December, 2021
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The Bendigo Spirit had a tough 2020 WNBL hub season, with a zero-win and 13-loss season.

In the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons the Spirit finished seventh and have not played finals since the 2014-15 season when they lost the grand final to the Townsville Fire. The Spirit have definitely recruited some talented players to try to turn around their fortunes.

Departures
Congratulations to Carley Ernst, who has become a mother, giving birth to her son Kylan in September. Ernst was the joint winner of the Spirit’s 2020 Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. Ernst has played for a number of WNBL teams including AIS, Dandenong Rangers, Canberra Capitals, Adelaide Lightning and Perth Lynx. Her athleticism and experience will be missed.

2020 co-vice-captain Amelia Todhunter – who has played over 200 WNBL games for the Dandenong Rangers, Bulleen/Melbourne Boomers, the West Coast Waves and Bendigo Spirit – will also not return.

A member of one of the best families in Australian basketball history Alicia Froling has moved to the University of Canberra Capitals. In a sliding-door moment Froling arrives at Canberra as her sister Keely leaves the Capitals to join the Flames.

Young star Paige Price spent some time at the Indiana University Hoosiers before returning to Melbourne to announce that she had signed to play AFLW with St Kilda.

Other players not returning to the Spirit include NZ Tall Fern Chevannah Paalvast, Jennie Rintala, Shelby Britten and Georgia Pineau, who injured her ACL in the Spirit’s last practice game before the 2020 season.

Bendigo Spirit

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Returning players
2020 Bendigo Spirit co-MVP Tessa Lavey returns to the Spirit. In 2020, Lavey finished in the top ten in the WNBL for points scored (15.2 points per game) and was third in the WNBL for average assists (5.9). Lavey won a championship with the Spirit in 2013-14. Lavey has also played in the WNBL for the AIS, Canberra Capitals, Perth Lynx and Dandenong Rangers.

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Lavey has represented the Opals at a number of competitions. Lavey played at the 2016 and 2020 Olympics. With the Opals, Lavey has won silver (2018) and bronze (2014) at the FIBA World Cup and silver at the 2017 FIBA Women’s Asia Cup. Last season, Lavey also made her debut for Richmond’s AFLW team.

Demi Skinner had an impressive debut WNBL season in 2019-20 with the Spirit averaging 21 minutes, 9.1 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. Skinner had a season high 26 points versus the Townsville Fire. In the 2020 season, Skinner averaged almost seven points per game.

Skinner grew up in Port Lincoln, representing SA in the under-18 national championships and playing for the Gems in the Under-19s Oceania Championships. Prior to joining the Spirit, Skinner played in the Queensland Basketball League with the Toowoomba Mountaineers. In 12 games in the 2021 NBL1 South for the Ringwood Hawks, Skinner averaged 9.75 points per game and 4.66 rebounds per game.

Mary Goulding made her WNBL debut for the Spirit in 2020. She was equal top scorer for the Spirit in back-to-back games against the Townsville Fire. Goulding is from Rangiora in New Zealand. Goulding attended New York’s Fordham University, where she was named MVP in a team that won the Atlantic 10 Championship.

Goulding led Fordham with 47.9 per cent field goal shooting percentage and 39.8 per cent three-point shooting percentage. Goulding has also played for the NZ Tall Ferns. At the 2021 FIBA Women’s Asia Cup, Goulding averaged 8.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game.

wo hands compete for a basketball at tip off

(Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Cassidy McLean averaged 3.1 points, 1.8 rebounds and one assist per game for the Spirit in 2018-19. McLean injured her knee playing for her hometown Newcastle Hunters in the Waratah Basketball League in 2019, which saw her miss the 2019-20 WNBL season. McLean was able to return to the Spirit line-up for the WNBL 2020 hub season. In the 2021 NBL1 South competition, McLean averaged 10.33 points per game, 4.93 rebounds per game and 2.80 assists per game for the Bendigo Braves.

Eighteen-year-old Piper Dunlop has worked her way through the junior pathways in Bendigo. She has been a Junior Brave and represented Victoria and Australia at the junior level on multiple occasions. Dunlop also played for the Braves in the 2019 NBL1 season.

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Dunlop played for the Spirit in the 2020 hub season and has progressed from a training player to development player to a player with a full contract. Dunlop was awarded the club’s rising star award in 2020. In the NBL1 South 2021 season, Dunlop averaged nine points and 6.6 rebounds per game for the Braves.

Recruits
The first of the Spirit’s big-name recruits is Leilani Mitchell. Mitchell is at home shooting three pointers, but her distribution skills will be important to the Spirit’s offensive output. Mitchell is the only player to win the WNBA’s most improved player award twice.

Mitchell has won WNBL Championships in 2016-17 with the Sydney Uni Flames, 2018-19 with the University of Canberra Capitals and 2020 with the Southside Flyers. Mitchell won the grand final MVP for the Flames and the Flyers. Mitchell was also the Flyers’ MVP in their first season. Mitchell will reunite with coach Tracy York, who she played with at the Adelaide Lightning. Mitchell has been a stalwart for the Opals for several years.

Former Melbourne Boomers co-captain Maddie Garrick returns to the Spirit after six seasons with the Boomers. Garrick is a member of the Australian 3×3 team and played for the Opals in the 2017 FIBA Women’s Asia Cup.

Garrick, who hails from Shepparton, also previously played in the WNBL with the AIS and was a member of two WNBL championships in her previous stint with Bendigo. Garrick has always found herself at home behind the three-point line. Playing 3×3 has helped her develop and given her the confidence to drive to the basket. Garrick top scored for the Spirit in two pre-season games.

Anneli Maley brings energy and enthusiasm to any team she plays for. In limited minutes for the Southside Flyers in 2019-20, she hit the boards when given the opportunity. In 2019, playing with Diamond Valley in the NBL1 competition, Maley led the league in rebounds and won the Youth Player of the Year award.

Then in the 2020 WNBL season, Maley played for the Sydney Uni Flames. She led the league in rebounding, average 12.1 rebounds per game. Maley has also played college basketball for the University of Oregon Ducks. Maley is the daughter of former NBL star and current Basketball Australia Executive General Manager Paul Maley.

Basketball going through the net

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Forward Megan McKay had a decorated junior career, representing Western Australia several times and was a member of the West Coast Waves development squad. Like many Australians, McKay had a college stint at St Mary’s, where she was named to the All-West Coast Conference First Team. McKay played in the top German League with TSV 1880 Wasserburg where she averaged 16 points and eight rebounds per game before joining the Townsville Fire in 2020.

McKay obviously impressed the Spirit with her performances against Bendigo. In one match against the Spirit, McKay topped the rebounds (14) and assists (five) for the Fire and in the other match against the Spirit was equal leading scorer for the Fire with 18 points and had the equal most rebounds with eight. In 2021, McKay averaged 15.05 points per game and 11.27 rebounds per game for the Perry Lakes Hawks in NBL1 West.

Forward Carly Boag was a member of the Sydney Uni Flames’ 2016-17 championship winning team. Carly played college basketball at Minot State University in North Dakota. Boag was named All-American in two of her four seasons. In 2014-15 Carly spent a season with Leon Tregor Basket 29 in France and also played for Espoo Basket Team in Finland. Boag played for the Sydney Uni Flames during the 2020 season.

Bella Stratford has returned to the Bendigo Spirit as a development player. Stratford was a development player for the Spirit in 2019-20 and has been playing for the Southern Tigers in NBL1 Central this year. Stratford hails from Mt Gambier and has represented South Australia at under-16 and under-18 level. Stratford spent last season playing college basketball for California State University.

The Spirit have also signed Alana Goodchild from New South Wales as a development player. Goodchild has recently spent a season at Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence. Goodchild has played for Spirit coach Tracy York in the Australian under-15 team.

The Spirit also signed Canadian international Katherine Plouffe. However, both parties agreed to mutually part ways due to Plouffe’s choice in relation to COVID-19 vaccinations.

Prediction
With the recruitment of Mitchell, Garrick, Maley and McKay, there will definitely be significant improvement from the Spirit this season. Although I am not sure the level of improvement will be high enough to reach finals.

Predicted finish: sixth.

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