WNBL: Nick Drane and the golden Ipswich Basketball Club story

Endeavour Ipswich Basketball Club is unquestionably one of British basketball's great success stories.

Since 1976, the club has won multiple titles at junior and senior levels and produced elite, home-grown players who have enjoyed or are enjoying stellar careers.

What makes their story so remarkable is that all this undeniable success is coming out of a small town with roughly 137,000 people.

And its current club head coach, and playcaller for their senior women, Nick Drane, is a massive part of the club's illustrious history.

But he quickly reminds people that he didn't start it all.

"I take no credit for being the mastermind behind Ipswich," he says. "What I will say is when I joined, I was a naïve man at 21-years-old back in 2002."

Ipswich have won countless titles across the club over the last few decades

In actual fact, Ipswich Basketball Club was founded by Bernard Ball, and with Bernard at the helm, the women's team enjoyed tremendous success in the 80s and early 90s.

Ipswich won the National Trophy and numerous junior accolades, with a golden generation of stars on the court, including Sally Kaznica, who represented England at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and Lily Fredricks (nee: Mallet).

Bernard stepped away, allowing his son Michael to take over before the Drane-era began.

"When I joined Ipswich, I was the county development officer at a time when the club was going through a difficult period with so many influential people moving on," Drane said.

"Bernard had stepped back, Michael moved away, and there was no one to steer the ship, although Bernard did come back to coaching and worked as a mentor to me.

"I admit that I stumbled into basketball development as I was still playing, and with the help of some volunteers who are still the heart and soul of Ipswich Basketball Club, we revived and reinvented the club itself into the monster that it is now."

Drane passes on some instruction to Yazmin Edwards

A 'Little' pot of gold

As Drane enters his seventh season as head coach of the women's team, it all began while he was still coach of the men's side.

Drane had guided the Ipswich boys and men’s programme to a Jnr. NBL national championship, multiple trips to the final fours and several promotions through the senior NBL structure, developing high profile talents such as Lee Linton-Hodges, Caleb Fuller, Sam Newman, Josh Apple and Ethan Price along the way.

However, after fifteen years of driving the club's boys and men’s programme, he was in need of a change.

Then he came across a 12-year-old girl, already nearly six-feet tall, and possessed all the skills needed for a WNBL player and hopefully beyond.

"I thought she was the most talented kid I had ever seen at our club, and I said, 'We need to do better on the girl's side'," Drane explained.

"It’s fair to say that the boys' side was more successful than the girls during my first decade at the club. But, Ipswich has a long history of girls and women’s basketball and saw that we had some real talent at the younger age groups that needed the right guidance.

"We had a WEABL team, but were playing games with seven and sometimes just six players. If we are to have a top-level women's team, we need to start now and with further talented players coming through, we thought once they turn 16, and come to our academy, then there will be a real pathway for them."

That 12-year-old prodigy: Esther Little.

But Drane was quick to point out that Little wasn't alone. Cameron Taylor-Willis, Susannah Rafiu, and Ella Pearson were also present in what turned out to be chapter two of the club's golden generation. Combining them with then academy players and established GB juniors, Ashleigh Pink and Maya Price, plus Copleston graduates Harriet Welham, Danielle Cazey, Ashleigh Pink and Amy Linton-Hodges, their core roster was in place.

Ipswich won WNBL2 in 2018 with a perfect 15-0 record and defied the odds to beat the mighty Essex Blades (now Rebels) in the WNBL National Cup final, becoming the first team from outside of WNBL1 to do so, completing a perfect 23-0 season across all competitions.

And to prove it was no fluke, Ipswich went on to win back-to-back WNBL1 titles in 2020 and 2021, with Harriet Welham winning back-to-back league MVPs.

But all good things come to an end.

Drane's own golden generation would move on as Little headed to Gonzaga. New York called for Rafiu, as she headed to Columbia University and Pearson went to Newbury College.

A bit closer to home, Welham signed a professional contract in France, and Taylor-Willis went to the Women's British Basketball League side, Essex Rebels, while Linton-Hodges retired and Cazey chose to take a break from basketball.

"These girls all benefited from a real energy and focus into girls and women's basketball, and what's happened is that we created a legacy," said Drane.

Ipswich celebrating the 2017/18 WNBL National Cup (Mansoor Ahmed/Ahmed Photos)

New breed

That legacy is continuing right in front of our eyes. With a small town like Ipswich becoming so appealing, it attracted Oldham native Liv Forster, who has shone with Drane since she arrived in 2021.

Ipswich’s Copleston-based academy relies on the development of home-grown players for its recruitment and although the likes of Forster and Louisa Gibbins, who joined from Bristol Flyers, have moved to join the programme, but due to the club's geographic location they do not enjoy the luxury of multiple, high level, feeder clubs in close proximity.

For Drane, it’s still all about the development of players in the Ipswich area. DeAnna Carrington, Cerys Leach, Maia Wiseman and Kara Bassil, all under-16 stars just last season, have featured for the WNBL1 side so far this campaign.

And alongside Forster, Welham has returned from her French adventures, Cazey has been brought back. Christabel Osorobo, Yazmin Edwards, Hannah Gray, and Gibbins have returned to begin a fresh chapter, perhaps a third chapter of a book of golden talent.

For a team currently topping D1W and enjoying a spot in this month's WNBL National Cup Final, it's hard to deny.

"Our previous generation was a tall, long team, packed with forwards, whose length and athletic ability caused no end of problems, but this current crop is different," said Drane.

"This group is very guard-based, quick, and can shoot the lights out. Liv Forster has come in and can score in many ways, but her biggest strength is her three-point shooting.

"This is an exciting team to watch, and I'm thrilled to be part of it."

Since switching from coaching men to women, Drane has helped Ipswich women lift 12 national titles in various age groups.

Who knows how many chapters of their triumphant story are left.


Words by John Hobbs