WNBL: Hemel Storm aiming high after first season

After narrowly missing out on the WNBL2 playoffs, Hemel Storm refuse to put their heads down.

Instead, they are marching forward in their quest to build the women's team.

Despite not making the post-season, Hemel finished with a winning record of 12-10 with obstacles of injuries to various players. But they pushed on to finish a respectable fifth in WNBL2 Pool II in their first season.

However, for assistant coach Steve Darlow, a former Hemel player in the late 80s and head coach of the men's team, this is just the beginning of an aim to grow the women's team to a standard that the men, of his son Michael is an assistant coach, is enjoying.

"We had a good season, but we had an up-and-down season, that's for sure," Darlow said.

"The team's ambition is to progress into Division 1, and if we could have done that this year, that would have been fantastic.

"But we also needed to establish a brand, a presence, and we wanted to make ourselves known as a women's team in the community, and we did that.

"We would have liked to have been in the playoffs, however there were a few setbacks, but we recovered from those."

Injuries hamper momentum

Before the obstacles, though, the newcomers Hemel were in dreamland at the start of the season, winning their first four games. One of those victories came against Thames Valley Cavaliers II, the team that would eventually take the coveted fourth and final playoff spot at their expense.

Their 4-0 run was snapped at the hands of local rivals Oaklands Wolves II as they faced their first challenge of bouncing back from a loss, and that task was met head-on and conquered with a comfortable victory over Plymouth City Patriots.

"The top seven or eight teams are really competitive, and this season, we have had a lot of close games. You had to really compete because, ultimately, you could lose against any team in this league," Darlow explained.

"A few teams found it difficult, but to their credit, like us, they were also new to the WNBL. They preserved and competed as well, and I hope they can improve and make the league stronger.

"I feel that the WNBL2 is a solid division with highly skilled players, and they – like us – want to be in Division 1."

Hemel were competing for the top spot heading into February when three losses in that pivotal month set them back. The group faced injury setbacks throughout the early part of the 2024.

A significant loss was their leading scorer, Emily Taylor, who was sidelined for nearly two months due to an ankle injury sustained in the 60-59 loss to eventual champions Cobham Cobras.

Darlow said this exposed some weaknesses in the roster, especially as other players started going down.

"Emily [Taylor] gives us around 20 points a game, but it isn't just her scoring; she's a terrific defender and has an incredible all-around basketball IQ, so when she turned her ankle against Cobham, it was a massive loss for us," said Darlow.

Challenges ahead

The Storm finished with a 12-10 record, six of which were decided by five points or less, which showcased the fighting spirit that exemplifies the group. Darlow saw that pride first hand.

"I love Hemel Storm. It's a terrific club with a fantastic fanbase and volunteer network. I am happy to be playing my part in getting the ladies integrated into this club," Darlow said.

"Bringing a women's team was overdue, but now that it is there, and we've established it, we have something to build on.

"There are sponsors who are interested. We have had fans watch us play, and some of the men's team have also come and cheered us on. That family-like environment is what makes Hemel Storm such a wonderful team to be part of."

A big part of the first season's success was Storm head coach Lil Fredrick, who led the team from the front and even, at times, suited up herself when the numbers were low, especially during that period when Hemel was hampered by injuries.

"It seemed when we were losing players to injuries, the rest of the league was improving and getting better, game-by-game," Darlow admitted.

"But Lil has been an amazing leader and has shown her capabilities on so many occasions this season. 

"I remember her as a player from Ipswich and she was a tough cookie and always wanted to win. When we were low on players due to injury, she put some court time in and hit an important three-pointer down in Plymouth in February to win [59-53].

"But Lil has great passion and great drive plus a tremendous amount of coaching knowledge and the other things she does off the court such as booking the court, sorting table officials out amongst the stuff that goes unnoticed that she does, and she's a fantastic ambassador for this club."

Fredrick and Darlow will look back on their first season with pride, but next season, those smiles will be wiped off, and the challenge of the second season will be a playoff spot with the goal of promotion to WNBL1.


All photo credits - Hemel Storm

Words by John Hobbs