The Bendigo Spirit will be looking to break a long drought without finals action in the 2021/22 WNBL season. (Photo: Bendigo Spirit/Twitter)

The Bendigo Spirit weren't able to find a win last season, but with some WNBA-level experience entering the mix, they'll look to change their fortunes in 2021/22.

The Bendigo Spirit haven’t seen finals action in the WNBL for six years since losing the third of three consecutive grand finals after back-to-back championships from the 2012/13 and 2013/14 seasons.

Slipping further down the ladder in the seasons that followed, the Spirit failed to win a game throughout the 2020 season.

However, having retained much of their roster, and with a handy international-level acquisition in Leilani Mitchell, coach Tracy York and captain Tessa Lavey will be looking to put together a campaign that shows the heights the team can reach on the court.

Last season

The 2020 WNBL season was shortened from 21 games to 13 games per team for the regular home and away fixtures.

It wasn’t an easy one for the Bendigo Spirit, languishing at the bottom of the table from the start of the season onwards, finishing without making a dent in the win column and losing each of their matchups.

With a number of players departing the Spirit before the 2020 season began – US import Rebecca Tobin went to Romania to play for ACS Sepsi SIC, Gabrielle Richards retired after 14 seasons with the club, whereas Shyla Heal and Abigail Wehrung moved to the Townsville Fire and Adelaide Lightning respectively , the team were behind the eight-ball from the start.

They conceded over 100 points in the first two games of the season against the Southside Flyers and Sydney Uni Flames with margins of 42 points and 37 points respectively, a less-than-ideal result for a side that was looking to improve considerably.

The Spirit wouldn’t concede 100 points again – 99 points against the Townsville Fire in Round 4 the closest, the contest also marking the team’s highest-losing margin of 48 points. The week after though, Bendigo produced its best result of the year, finishing within six points of the Adelaide Lightning at the conclusion of their Round 5 matchup.

Across the competition, the Spirit were assisted mostly by dual-MVPs Tessa Lavey – who lead the team in points per game (15.2) and rebounds per game (7.5) – and 2012 WNBL Rookie of the Year Carley Ernst – who’s output for the cub yielded 14.8 points per game, 4.8 rebounds per game and a team-high 5.9 assists per game.

Biggest in

The Bendigo Spirit have secured the biggest coup of the off-season, signing reigning Grand Final MVP with the Southside Flyers, Leilani Mitchell to their roster for the 2021/22 WNBL season.

Guiding the franchise to its fourth WNBL championship overall – and first under the Southside Flyers name – Mitchell was electric in the contest, putting up 31 points, four rebounds and five assists to guide the team to a 99-82 victory.

Mitchell led the WNBL in assists per game (6.5) in 2020, a factor of her game that makes her such a handy acquisition. She’ll be able to surround her teammates and provide them with good looks around the court, while also being able to score under pressure, either inside the arc or on the outside.

First making her professional debut in the WNBA with the New York Liberty in 2008, Mitchell has spent 12 years in the league which included stints with the Phoenix Mercury and the Washington Mystics, where she currently plays.

She earned the WNBA’s Most Improved Player award in 2010 – where she earned career-highs in field goal percentage (44.1 per cent), three point percentage (48.6 per cent) and steals per game (1.6) – and 2019 – averaging career-highs in rebounds per game (3.0) and points per game (12.8).

Mitchell also has experience in the Opals setup, representing Australia at multiple events, and first making her debut in the green and gold in the team’s bronze-medal-winning 2014 FIBA World Championship.

She would become a useful player for the Opals at the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games as the team reached the quarter-finals on both occasions.


Biggest out

Alicia Froling is the only player from the Bendigo Spirit’s roster last season to have found a new home in the WNBL, joining the University of Canberra Capitals for the upcoming season.

Having been on the Spirit’s roster for two seasons, last year marked the first season where she was able to accumulate game time, after being forced to sit out of the 2019/20 season with a wrist injury.

A tough competitor, the forward is able to contribute anywhere across the court with her rebounding, running, transition and physicality all contributing components that make her a huge loss to the Spirit.

Player to watch

New Zealand-born forward Mary Goulding looks set to take her game to the next level, having impressed in her first season in the WNBL with the Spirit. Only 25 years of age, Goulding began her professional career in 2019 with Sweden’s IK Eos Lund.

In her debut WNBL season in 2020, Goulding showed positive signs of the player she is and can become through 11 games, leading the team in steals per game (1.3). She was equally as good on offence, finishing with 6.8 points per game, the third-highest average among the team.

With the Spirit looking to improve at both ends of the floor this season, Goulding looms as a good chance to provide cover anywhere on the court. Her ability to shoot at almost 50 per cent makes her dangerous on the attack, but she can also have a presence in the back-end at the rim to collect the loose balls.

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Starting five

PG: Leilani Mitchell

SG: Tessa Lavey

SF: Anneli Maley

PF: Megan McKay

C: Piper Dunlop

Full squad

Carly Boag, Piper Dunlop, Madeleine Garrick, Alana Goodchild (development), Mary Goulding, Tessa Lavey, Anneli Maley, Megan McKay, Cassidy McLean, Leilani Mitchell, Demi Skinner, Bella Stratford (development)

Fixture highlights

The Bendigo Spirit kick their season off with a Melbourne derby against last year’s champions the Southside Flyers in Dandenong in Round 1.

The same fixture began Bendigo’s season in 2020, however the side will be hoping for a different outcome than the 42-point drubbing. It also marks the Spirit’s new signing Leilani Mitchell’s homecoming after her decorated WNBL career with the Flyers.

The Melbourne derbies continue into Round 2 when the Spirit host the Melbourne Boomers in their first home game of the new season. In two encounters in 2020, the Boomers won both by 22 points and 21 points respectively.

Having a rivalry with the Townsville Fire after three consecutive grand finals from the 2012/13 and 2014/15 seasons, that continues with the latest chapter beginning in Round 6. Bendigo came close in the first of two matchups in 2020, losing by 10 points before a 48-point loss the following week.

What to expect

Boasting a team where a large majority of their players are under the age of 23 and with many rookies in the squad, the team looks set to develop on and off the court throughout the next few months, building some chemistry in a team that is learning the ropes of the game at the top level.

The Spirit needed to address their scoring and they have done so with Leilani Mitchell’s signing, but will still need more all-round contributions across the court, especially in defence. The upside to that is that there is a plethora of young talent that could fill the mantle.

Final word

The competitiveness of the squad wasn’t utilised to its full potential, but a fresh start with a mostly-retained roster will do well for chemistry and learning each other’s games under Tracy York.

Should the Bendigo Spirit improve on both their offensive and defensive efforts in the 2021/22 season, the Spirit should have more than enough chances to take a big step forward and register a few wins, having identified target key areas of the game, and addressing such factors.

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