Reigning champions the Southside Flyers have lost some Opals level talent coming into WNBL22. (Photo: Southside Flyers)

Reigning champions the Southside Flyers have lost two of their most dynamic playmakers, but will still be aiming to challenge again.

Southside enters WNBL22 as reigning champions after winning its fourth championship, and the first since rebranding from the Rangers name. But with a number of key outs, will it be a return to finals or a slide down the table?

Last season: 1st (Premiers)

The Flyers enjoyed the Queensland hub more than most, with a competition best 11-2 record. They won by an average of 25 points, only winning by single figures once.

To say they were dominant doesn’t do it justice. They held the competition’s highest scorer and blocker in Liz Cambage (who was also top five for rebounds), with another of its most efficient players in Rebecca Cole.

Saraid Taylor was one of the competition’s most accurate shooters, while Leilani Mitchell displayed her class by showing up hard in the big games. 31 points at 69 per cent and 71 per cent from outside the arc in the grand final was one of the year’s best performance, earning her Player of the Match honours.

After losing to the UC Capitals, the Flyers won their last nine games on the path to the championship, led from the front by the Opals talent.

Biggest in:

Making the switch from the Capitals, Maddison Rocci will add both an extra avenue to goal and a reliable set of hands to help run the floor in Leilani Mitchell’s absence.

Rocci shot an average 16 points per game at 39 per cent, both incredibly creative in playmaking for her teammates while being capable of shooting from anywhere herself.

What differentiates Rocci from other guards is just how hard she works to win possession back for her side.

The 23-year-old averaged an equal competition high 2.2 steals alongside Alison Schwagmeyer, who recently signed for Montana 2003 in Bulgaria.

Rocci won the Capitals’ MVP award last season, also being named in the All-WNBL Second Team. She joined the Opals training squad at the end of the season, rewarded for her performance.

Already a dual-championship winner, the guard brings big game experience and proven performance to a side that’ll be looking to push for another title of their own.

Biggest out:

Though she won’t be playing basketball anywhere for the time being, Liz Cambage is undoubtedly the biggest loss for the Flyers this season.

It was absolutely splitting hairs between Cambage and Leilani Mitchell. They’re both Opals mainstays with some of the most international experience in the WNBL.

Both bring genuine star power, but Cambage’s competition high stat lines in 2020 are too good to ignore.

The centre averaged the most points per game (23.6) and blocks per game (1.9), and was in the top five for rebounds (8.6).

Her pure physicality, backed up by her strength under the rim, made her a nightmare on both offence and defence. Perhaps the only knock on her game is her three point shooting (going at 26 per cent last season).

The Flyers’ depth in the centre position is largely inexperienced, so it will hard to replace such a huge presence.

Player to watch:

She’s had a horror past three years, but one of Australia’s brightest basketball talents in Kristy Wallace has signed with the Flyers for WNBL22.

Wallace was drafted to the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA in 2018 after a wildly successful college career at Baylor. Her final year saw her average 12.9 points, 5.3 assists and 5.0 rebounds.

While her scoring stats don’t jump off the page for a point guard, her defensive stats set her apart.

At 5’11”, Wallace knows how to use her extra height on defence, averaging 1.0 steals and 0.6 blocks in her final year at Baylor.

We’ve unfortunately barely been able to see any basketball from Wallace since, tearing her ACL in her last year of college and then re-tearing it two days into her first campaign with the UC Capitals.

She’s finally had a chance to get back on court, both domestically and internationally. The 25-year-old played five games with the Melbourne Tigers in the NBL1 this year, averaging 14.2 points at 53.4 per cent, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.2 steals.

More notably though, Wallace made her Opals debut at the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup in Jordan. She picked up a steal in the group stage match against China, while notching up five rebounds and three assists against New Zealand.

While Wallace won’t likely be a regular fixture of the starting five as she continues to build back fully, her defensive spark off the bench will be utilised to great effect.

Starting five:

PG: Maddison Rocci

SG: Rebecca Cole

SF: Sara Blicavs

PF: Jenna O’Hea

C: Abby Bishop

Full squad:

Abby Bishop, Sara Blicavs, Aimie Clydesdale, Rebecca Cole, Kate Gaze, Emilee Harmon, Rachel Jarry, Jenna O’Hea, Maddison Rocci, Kristy Wallace

Fixture highlights:

The Flyers open their season, and WNBL22 as a whole, against last year’s wooden spooners the Bendigo Spirit and Leilani Mitchell at home.

Fans will get their first chance to look at new recruits including Rocci, Kate Gaze, Abby Bishop and Kristy Wallace. They’ll also see get to see the championship in person nearly a year after it was won.

The first Melbourne derby against the Boomers will be away from home on December 11, at the Melbourne Sports Centres Parkville. The Flyers will then host another derby the weekend after, with back-to-back Saturday night blockbusters.

A grand final rematch against the Townsville Fire on December 23 could give Flyers supporters the perfect Christmas present, or coal in their stockings.

Southside’s first match of the new year will see them host the Perth Lynx at Dandenong Stadium. The club will close out the season at home, hosting the UC Capitals.

What to expect:

Led by coach Cheryl Chambers and captain Jenna O’Hea, expect the Flyers to be around the top four mark again in WNBL22.

The unfortunate part of entering the season as reigning champions is that the only way to go is down. While the Flyers will no doubt finish with a positive record again, they’ll be the hunted instead of the hunter.

Losing two of the WNBL’s best players in Liz Cambage and Leilani Mitchell will hurt. Chambers will be no doubt constantly looking for new avenues to score without the competition’s reigning highest scorer and Grand Final MVP.

A mixture of Opals experience and budding young talent could make the Flyers inconsistent at times, but could also make those younger players develop quickly.

The starting five we’ve named is as strong as anyone’s, filled with players who have been through the college system and performed consistently on the international stage.

There will be pressure on O’Hea and Rebecca Cole this season to bring their leadership, and Southside may go through lapses when either is on the bench.

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With that said, the Flyers should undoubtedly be an exciting team to watch. Having Maddison Rocci and Kristy Wallace available at point guard brings two very different playing styles to the floor.

Rocci will add an extra avenue to the rim, while Wallace is almost another tall on defence. Expect the latter to be creating turnovers straight from the hands of opposing guards and either converting the lay up herself or setting up the alley oop.

The last word:

Though we’ve focused on areas where the Flyers can decline, there’s still plenty to like for fans and players alike.

Returning to Dandenong Stadium will no doubt provide an extra boost. If this squad could do it up in a hub in Queensland, they’re very capable of doing it in the comforts of home.

They might look a very different team at times, but there’s a reason why the Flyers have finished top of the table two years straight.

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