Whilst it has been a time of upheaval in the WNBL over the last offseason, continuity has been the theme for the defending champion Brydens Sydney Uni Flames heading into the 2017/18 season.
With minimal player changes from the team that lifted the trophy in Dandenong earlier this year, the team will be hoping that familiarity breeds success in the face of some outstanding recruiting from other teams, with a number of teams bringing in big-name players, including the return of Liz Cambage to the Melbourne Boomers, and Adelaide Lightning bringing Abby Bishop back to her home state of South Australia.
The Flames, on the other hand, lost perhaps their biggest name from last season in Leilani Mitchell, who has made the move to Turkey and will suit up for Hatay BB this season. However, Mitchell’s replacement in the backcourt is a name well known to all Flames fans: Katie-Rae Ebzery.
2017/18 will be Ebzery’s seventh season in Flames colours, and after a season in Russia in which the 2016 Olympian spent the majority of her time playing point guard for Dynamo Moscow, returns to Australia a far more-rounded player.
Originally, it seemed as if Ebzery would split her time between the two guard spots, but with recent WNBA draftee Tahlia Tupaea going down with an injury, the point guard spot appears to be where Ebzery will spend most of her time.
Accompanying Ebzery on the perimeter are likely to be two of the stars of last season’s finals campaign: Alex Wilson and Belinda Snell.
Both players are deadly three-point shooters when dialled in, but they offer so much more to the team, with both players able to get to the basket with aplomb when the occasion deems necessary.
Wilson’s exploits earned her a spot on the Emerging Opals side which won gold at the Summer Universiade in Taiwan, defeating the host nation in front of a packed house in the semi-finals before knocking off Japan to secure gold.
Snell, on the other hand, worked her way back into the Opals squad for the FIBA Asia Cup, in which Australia finished with the silver after going down to Japan in the final. The triple Olympic medallist and 2006 World Champion brings a vast level of experience that has proven vital to the Flames in the past, and Snell will surely continue to lead the team, both with her play and her captaincy skills.
The tall timber carries a distinctly American flavour, with 2016/17 WNBL All Star Five member Asia Taylor re-joining the Flames alongside Jennifer Hamson as the team’s inside presence remains consistent.
Taylor’s athleticism and tenacity helped make the former University of Louisville star a fan favourite on her way to All Star Five selection, whilst Hamson’s height can cause problems for just about every other team in the league. Both players have spent time with WNBA teams this season, and this experience should no doubt serve them well in the coming season.
The supporting cast reads almost identically to last season, with the loss of Lauren Nicholson to Adelaide the only glaring change. Shanae Greaves and Carly Boag will continue to provide support to Hamson and Taylor, with both enjoying outstanding winter seasons. Greaves led the Sydney Uni Sparks to a SEABL conference preliminary final, whilst Boag rode roughshod over the Western Australian SBL competition, topping the league in rebounds and assists as her Mandurah side finished runner-up.
Meanwhile, Lara McSpadden will be looking to increase her minutes in the rotation in her second season with the Flames, having enjoyed a solid season alongside Greaves at the Sparks as well as representing her country at the Under 19 World Championships earlier this year, where the Gems finished sixth.
With Tahlia Tupaea out for an extended period, the remainder of the backcourt rotation will need to step up, and that is where Sarah Graham comes into the picture. One of the deadliest shooters in the league, Graham hit her shots at a remarkable 54% from beyond the arc last season, and that accuracy could yet prove invaluable to the Flames in 2017/18.
Alongside Graham is the vastly experienced Hayley Moffatt, a Flames’ fan favourite who has worked her way back from a potentially career-threatening injury to secure a spot on the roster. Moffatt has long been one of the best defenders in the league, and the former Flames Defensive Player of the Year is always good for a basket right when the team needs one the most.
The team is rounded out with a pair of Newcastle products, whom alongside Katie-Rae Ebzery and Lara McSpadden take the number of players hailing from the banks of the Hunter to four.
Susannah Walmsley and Cassidy McLean each saw limited minutes in 2016/17, but both have spent the winter playing and developing their game – Walmsley for the Sydney Uni Sparks and McLean for the Newcastle Hunters in Waratah League. With an extra year of development under their belts, both have surely staked a claim for increased minutes in 2017/18 as the Flames attempt to defend their title.
The season starts with a tough road trip on the very first weekend of the season for the Flames, travelling to Adelaide and Perth before returning home for a grand final rematch with Dandenong on Saturday October 14.
The Flames then face Townsville at home before travelling to Melbourne to take on the Boomers before their second meeting with Dandenong rounds out a challenging first six games. Getting through this stretch with a good record will be vital to the team’s finals hopes, but it could also set the Flames up well for a late run, as they play six of their last nine games at home.
In a shorter season that sees teams play 21 games in 12 weeks, using that home advantage to the best of their ability may be the ace up the sleeve for the Flames in what will no doubt be an incredibly close season.