STOP if you’ve heard this before.
The Albury-Wodonga Lady Bandits, coming off a luckless campaign, appoint a rookie coach from New Zealand and recruit two imports who have never set foot in the South East Australian Basketball League.
This year’s Lady Bandits team has some noted similarities to the 2009 version that was coached by Kennedy Kereama and led by star import duo Lisa Wallbutton and Toni Edmondson.
That team flew under the radar for much of the season, taking opposition teams by surprise with smart, team-first basketball that resulted in a maiden — and unfortunately, solitary — playoff appearance.
And while it would be too much to expect lightning to strike twice for the Border club, there exists an opportunity for the Lady Bandits this year to improve their on-court fortunes again.
Having endured a one-win campaign last season, new coach James Ballinger admitted he had no set numbers in his mind in terms of wins and losses, saying his new-look squad made it hard to compare.
“It’s a tough one, everyone talks about the past two or three years,” Ballinger said.
“How it’s been a struggle and how it’s been tough and how they only had one win last year.
“But you look at this year’s group and last year’s group and a lot of the players aren’t the same.
“The imports are different, a couple of girls came out of retirement, a couple of girls have left.
“So it’s hard to judge what is a fair expectation; by the time we play Dandenong, we’ll have had five training sessions.
“How great we can be is kind of an unknown so we don’t have expectations in terms of wins and losses but for us it starts with being competitive in training.
“So when we get to the games, we can compete with other teams and when we start doing that we might have a gauge of where we’re at.”
Despite the comparisons to his Kiwi predecessor, Kereama, Ballinger said he wasn’t feeling the weight of history too much.
Ballinger admitted he’d spoken with Kereama — now the head coach of the WNBL’s West Coast Waves — about the league and what to expect.
“I think there’s pressure but it’s different too; Kennedy did a great job, what he put in place is still around for the women’s program,” Ballinger said.
“I think it’s really more about getting on with the job, more than what other people have as expectations or pressure.
“I can’t wait, I’ve been to one SEABL game in my life. I went a couple of years ago and it was awesome, there was a great crowd, great atmosphere and it was a great game.
“So from that viewpoint of challenging myself, I’m hugely excited for the opportunity.”
For the Border club to even keep pace with opposition teams, much will be required — and is expected — from US imports Rachel Maenpaa and Lonnika Thompson.
But Ballinger said he was confident the inside-outside combination would catch the competition unawares.
“Lonnika has a bit of a coaching background as well, so she’s been great at practice,” Ballinger said.
“Talking to other players about what she sees and what we’re trying to achieve. So from that standpoint we effectively have another coach on the court.
“Her work ethic is phenomenal, she played at Florida, she knows what it takes at this level.
“And then with Rachel, she’s a natural scorer.
“She’s certainly got a nose for the ball, she’ll have to play big for us a lot and that will be a challenge for her.
“But hopefully she can take advantage of some mismatches and they’ve both fitted in really well with the team.”
Imports aside, it’s how the local talent develops that will determine how the Lady Bandits’ season will be judged.
With that in mind, Ballinger admitted he would be trying to ensure the team played at an up-tempo pace, with a focus on aggressive defence.
“Coming from New Zealand, where we don’t always have the deepest rosters, and by all accounts, we don’t have that here,” Ballinger said.
“I like our roster but we don’t have any WNBL players so we can’t afford to just sit back and let the game happen.
“We have to get out there and force it a bit and be aggressive and put the pressure on them.
“Because if we get into a purely five-on-five up and down the court, it’s going to be hard for us to potentially win.”
Having extensive junior coaching experience in New Zealand, Ballinger said he was more of a teaching-type mentor, believing that approach produced better players than screaming at them.
“I’m very even-tempered, I like to work with the players,” Ballinger said.
“I don’t believe in barking at them, I prefer to work and getting them to understand why we’re doing something.
“Talking to them, getting their feedback and during the games, being upbeat and positive with short and sharp instructions.”
A baptism of fire awaits the rookie coach and his fledgling squad on Saturday night when they play host to the three-time defending SEABL champion Dandenong Lady Rangers.
With its championship nucleus of WNBL talent largely intact, the visitors will be keen to inflict a similar drubbing to the last time they played here, a 113-38 beatdown in round four last year.
But Ballinger said he was pleasantly surprised at his charges’ positive mindset in the lead-up to the season opener.
“Three-time defending champs, it’s tough first up,” Ballinger said. “But what’s impressed me with the girls, when I came here I had no idea if there was going to be scarring from last year, but, the girls are just excited for the challenge.
“They’re not stepping back, they’re excited to get out there and see what they’ve got this year, so last year’s result hopefully shouldn’t impact us too much in terms of preparation.
“I think we play six of the eight playoff teams from last year to start with.
“And that’s great, you have to play them at some point, so first couple of months and then we can assess from there.
“Definitely a tough start for us but we’ll find out a lot about ourselves over that stretch.”
At the end of the day, Ballinger is all too aware that his team, while not expected to win many games, will not be let off the hook when it comes to effort.
There were occasions last year that Border basketball fans felt the Lady Bandits just gave up and Ballinger acknowledged that couldn’t be allowed to happen again.
“I think that’s what the fans, the media, the coaches appreciate,” Ballinger said.
“No matter what, people don’t like it if you give up or concede defeat, that’s not the Australian way.
“So I think as long as we keep fighting, we stay constructive as a group and I think people will appreciate that to start with.
“Effort is key, if we’re lethargic and slow, that’s going to be bad for us.
“So it’s all about effort, movement and hustle. Those things can go a long way and it’s not always the team with the most talent that wins.”