After a lengthy off-season, WNBL Division One is set to get underway this weekend.
A premature end to the 2019/20 campaign saw Ipswich crowned as D1W champions, robbing fans of what would have been a thrilling race to the title between the Suffolk side and Anglia Ruskin University.
Ahead of the new season, we’ve got a run-down of all 12 teams and their rosters, plus a look ahead to this weekend’s opening fixtures.
Coach Drane will no doubt be delighted to welcome back reigning WNBL Division One MVP Harriet Welham for another year, while guard Colleen Leung also returns and offers experience to a roster with an average age of just 19.5.
What Ipswich may lack in experience they certainly make up for in talent, with a number of their teenagers, including Becky Harwood-Bellis, Cameron Taylor-Willis, Ella Pearson and Esther Little, all appearing on the GB radar in recent years.
Ipswich wing Danni Cazey said: "We didn’t win the way we wanted to [last year], so we kind of feel like we have some unfinished business. We are expecting the league to be more competitive than ever."
After missing out a year ago under the harshest of circumstances, ARU will be looking to go one step further in 2020/21 to continue their recent string of successes, including winning last season’s National Cup.
Katrin Hulme, 2018/19 Playoff Finals MVP and rebound leader from a year ago, returns, as do Noa Sanchez and Jazmin Gyulai. American guard Autumn Kalis joins the Rhinos from Carthage College in Wisconsin, while Courtney Gray jumps across from fellow D1W side Thames Valley.
ARU’s Katrin Hulme: "It’s been great to get back on the court and playing again after the long break! Things are going to be a bit different this season, but we can’t wait to get going and are looking forward to playing and growing together as a team."
The Rockets claimed third place in the standings last year with an 11-4 record and plenty of talent to work with moving forward.
With a consistent stream of talent beginning to fill the Reading ranks thanks to their work with John Madejski Academy in the WEABL, the Rockets U18 side were runners up in the U18 National Cup last February.
With the right blend of youth and experience, the Berkshire side will be hopeful of making another positive run at the top spots in D1W, starting this weekend.
Solent rounded out the top four last season, though going 3-3 over their final six games meant the Kestrels would have to settle for an 11-5 record once all was said and done.
The South Coast side should once again be a force this season, particularly if they have managed to retain guard and captain Krisztina Velkey. The Hungarian averaged 14.6ppg, 7.9rpg and a league best 4.9apg last year.
After making their D1W debut in 2019/20, Thames Valley immediately looked at home in the top flight at they collected fifth place and an 9-8 record.
In order to better their output from last season, Thames Valley will be looking to find a way to match the division’s leaders. They went a combined 0-6 against the likes of Ipswich, ARU and Reading last season, but 9-2 vs the rest of the field.
Even flipping two of those losses into wins would have seen TVC in the mix for a top three spot. That will no doubt be their aim this time round.
Talented guard Flo Ward returns for a Flyers team looking to improve on their .500 record of 8-8 last term. Ward enjoyed a team best 13.8ppg, 3.6apg and 3.1spg and is sure to play another integral role.
Coach Pedro Vega is still able to call upon the services of Mai Zilbeti, Fiona Fox and Hannah Wallace, whilst experienced Estonian forward Liisa Juul returns after a year off.
Nigerian forward Vernonica Iweanya, 5’11”, could be a player to keep an eye on, with the talented 24-year-old last playing for Stade Roubaisien in France.
Bristol coach Pedro Vega: “You start as a team-mate, and leave as a family.”
Nottingham reached the final of February’s National Cup but couldn’t convert that momentum into success in the league as they finished in seventh place at 4-11.
Starting the season 1-6 certainly didn’t help NTU’s cause, and losing American Arielle Jackson who averaged 24.6ppg last year to earn a spot in the D1W Team of the Year will no doubt be a blow.
Mady Burdett will hope to fill Jackson’s shoes as the 5’7” guard comes in from Whitman College in Washington. Fellow guard Michelle Bradley also joins NTU following spells with Loughborough and Nottingham Wildcats as the likes of Brahe Ashton, Vicky Gray and Isabel Bueriberi all return.
NTU coach Louise Waghorn said: “The players have been really excited to get back on court and are working very hard. We have eight returning players from last year which will provide a great opportunity to build on last season.
“We understand it could be a very up and down season, but we are all just happy to be on court and competing.”
Southwark Pride didn’t have a lot to cheer last season as they went 3-12 and finished just a single win above bottom side Loughborough.
The London programme have been rebuilding over the last year or two as Coach Gibbons navigates the inevitable highs and lows that come with working in an Academy setting and players that graduate and move on.
Making the WEABL final last season bodes well for the Pride programme as both teams share a similar squad of players, suggesting some of the best and brightest from CoLA’s roster could be lighting up the NBL this season to.
With a tricky 4-14 campaign now in the rear-view mirror, Barking can look forward to 2020/21 with a renewed sense of optimism.
Coach Tope Balogun has a packed roster for the season ahead with 20 players at his disposal. Included in that number at returnees Ann Sheia, Batoul Khaleefa and Kian Omer-Jones, plus youngsters Leia Edwards and Tinu Fakunle should both prove to be exciting new additions.
Whilst the roster may have significant depth, it should still have room for plenty of development with an average age of just 17.65.
BA coach Tope Balogun: "It’s an exciting time for our team, with key returners having picked up lots of experience last season. The new additions to the squad are sure to make an impact on the defensive end and bring great energy every game."
Last season’s basement side at 2-15, the Riders will be looking for a significant improvement in 2020/21.
As another programme with strong academy routes, it is likely to be a youthful looking Leicester roster as a number of the WEABL players try to boost their development with minutes in the WNBL.
Whilst 2019/20 may have been rough, the Riders did enjoy fourth spot and a 10-8 record as recently as 2018/19.
One of two new teams for the upcoming season, Cardiff gained promotion after going a perfect 10-0 in WNBL Division Two South last year.
D2 MVP Amber Deane returns for another season, while two former juniors from the South coast in Lauren Green and Heather Johnstone both fly from the Kestrels’ youth ranks overs to the Archers.
At 26, American guard Deane is also the oldest player on a fresh-looking Cardiff roster that will be eager to make their mark at this level.
Cardiff’s Amber Deane said: “After last season ending abruptly, we are excited and looking forward to playing Division 1 this year.
“It will certainly be challenging, intense and competitive and we are doing all that we can to prepare for a great season ahead.”
WNBL D2 North winners Worcester Wolves punched their ticket to D1 with a 9-2 record and a strong showing throughout 2019/20.
Unlike Cardiff, the Wolves were unable to retain their MVP from a year ago as Maia Bratka has left the programme. They can welcome some new faces into the mix though, including Portuguese guard Carolina Marques and Welsh wing Imogen Youd, who played most recently for Olivias and CB Nou Esplugues respectively.
Layla Hall is one of six returnees and at 6’4”, she is sure to be a handful for opponents across the division.
Wolves coach Ryan Emery said: “We are excited about the challenge ahead. We know this league is filled with great teams and great coaches and every game is going to be a different challenge.
“However, I also know how good my team is and how hard each player works for one another and the team.”
CoLA Southwark Pride v Reading Rockets - LIVE STATS
Main image credit - Luke Simcock
18 Jan 2021