The upcoming 2021-22 WNBL season will be a defining one for the University of Canberra Capitals, after falling short of a three-peat and losing plenty of talent over the off-season.
Franchise legend Marianna Tolo, reigning team MVP Maddison Rocci and Australian Opal Keely Froling have all departed, raising questions over whether the Capitals have the personnel to make another run.
But the team has brought back two club champions in Kelly Wilson and Alex Bunton, while Kelsey Griffin is still there to lead the way.
Star recruit from the US Brittney Sykes will also help cover some of those losses with her elite defence.
Underneath them is a bevy of young players who are ready to take the next step and seize the opportunities that are now available to them.
With head coach Paul Gorris still at the helm and a winning culture that has been the benchmark for the whole competition, Canberra still has the heart of a champion.
It will just now be on a new group of players to carry the torch.
With the prize of a historic third championship in a row on the line, Canberra ultimately finished third on the ladder last season with a record of nine wins and four losses.
Highlights included an early seven-game winning streak and being one of only two teams to defeat the eventual champions, Southside, all season.
But the squad dealt with some injuries during the year and fell short of finishing second on the ladder by percentage.
This meant the Capitals had to play the Boomers in a do-or-die Semi-Final to advance to the Prelim, and ultimately lost by 10 points.
Maddison Rocci won Canberra’s MVP, Marianna Tolo was awarded Players’ Player and Defensive Player of the Year, while young gun Jade Melbourne was recognised as “the Capital on the Rise”.
There’s no bigger inclusion for the Capitals this year than WNBA star Brittney Sykes.
Hailing from the Los Angeles Sparks, Sykes is coming off a season that saw her named in the WNBA’s All-Defensive First Team and finish second in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
She led the league in total steals with 58 and averaged 1.8 per game, while also scoring 9.4 points and getting 4.6 rebounds.
Heading to our shores for the very first time, the talented guard is sure to have an instant impact on the Capitals and league.
Sykes’ world-class defence will put every other team on notice, and her experience will be crucial to Canberra’s chances after the quality players it’s lost.
Unfortunately for the Capitals, there were three viable options for this section, but it was hard to look past Maddison Rocci after the career year she had.
Rocci took yet another step in her impressive development last season, averaging 16.0 points, 3.8 assists and 3.5 rebounds.
This was enough to see her make All WNBL Second Team, win the Capitals’ MVP award and finish top five in league MVP voting.
A two-time champion with Canberra, the team would have been hoping that Rocci would be a centrepiece of its line-up for years to come, given that she’s still only 23 years old.
Only adding to the sting is the fact that’s she linked up with last year’s champions, the Flyers.
Player to watch:
There are few more exciting young players in Australia than Jade Melbourne, which made her a natural choice for this section.
Melbourne looked far from a rookie last season, making an instant impact in her first year in the league.
The 19-year-old averaged 8.3 points 2.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists a game, with highlights from her season including a match-winning three against the Lynx and a 20-point game against the Boomers.
She also recently got the experience of winning a Bronze Medal with the Opals at the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup, which should only help her grow as a player.
Getting Melbourne to recommit was quite a coup for the Capitals, as she turned down a full basketball scholarship from Arizona State to do so.
Coach Paul Gorris has already said that he sees her as a future WNBA and Opals player, and the organisation will play an important role in making sure that she reaches those goals.
Melbourne’s natural development as a player and the departure of franchise cornerstones means she’s primed to take on an even bigger role this season.
PG: Kelly Wilson
SG: Brittany Smart
SF: Brittney Sykes
PF: Kelsey Griffin
C: Mikaela Ruef
Abby Cubillo, Alex Bunton, Alicia Froling, Brittanny Smart, Brittney Sykes, Jade Melbourne, Kelly Wilson, Kelsey Griffin, Mikaela Ruef, Shaneice Swain, Tahlia Tupaea, Gemma Potter
Casey Samuels, Bronte Corke, Abby Solway (Development Squad)
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Canberra’s opening three games of the season are all against Sydney, with the prospect of seeing the two Froling sisters playing against each other making them must watch.
Keely joined the Flames after five seasons with the Capitals, with Alicia heading the other way after missing last season with the Spirit due to injury.
These early games will also give an insight into how the team will perform after the departures it had over the off-season.
The Capitals will face the Boomers for the first time next season on January 8th.
Beyond being a match-up between two high-quality teams, it will be a chance for Canberra to get some sort of revenge after Melbourne knocked it out of the finals and ended its chance at a three-peat last year.
Canberra will also take on the reigning champions a couple of weeks later on January 21st.
A rematch of the 2019-20 Grand Final Series, it will also allow the Capitals to test themselves against the best.
Playing against Maddison Rocci for the first time will only add to the occasion.
What to expect:
The most immediate challenge for Canberra will be dealing with the quality players it lost over the off-season.
Replacing Marianna Tolo, Maddison Rocci and Keely Froling will be a big task, while Ashley Taia also left the club.
This could cause early chemistry and form issues, as the team gets used to playing without them and individual players acclimate to their new roles.
The leadership of Kelsey Griffin will be important during this period, to make sure the team adjusts and doesn’t lower its standards.
Import Brittney Sykes will also bring an instant presence on defence, while the returning Kelly Wilson manages the game at point guard.
Abby Cubillo, Jade Melbourne and Tahlia Tupaea are among the names who could see an increase in their minutes and output this season, as they look to replace the 16 points a game Rocci provided.
The team is well stocked for talent and depth in the backcourt, while the duo of Griffin and Alicia Froling looks strong at power forward.
Potential issues could arise at the five though, as the Capitals look to fill the big shoes Tolo has left.
It means that Mikaela Ruef will need to step up and possibly play big minutes at center.
The team did manage to coax club champion Alex Bunton out of retirement, but it will need to be careful in how it manages her given Bunton’s long injury history and time spent away from the league.
But there’s still every reason to think that Canberra will be a competitive side until it shows otherwise.
Knowing the culture Paul Goriss and the team have established, it’s hard to see them lowering their expectations.
The last word:
Canberra is facing its biggest challenge in years, as it enters the 2021-22 season without some familiar faces.
While the task is daunting, the talent it managed to retain and bring in means the team is still well-positioned to be competitive.
The more intangible aspect of having a winning and revered culture also means the club’s pride won’t let it fall down the ladder without a fight.
The Capitals will make the finals again after finishing fourth, and they’ll be a daunting challenge for any opponent given their championship experience.
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