If you had told Southland Sharks general manager Jill Bolger 10 years ago just how much success the team would have had in its first decade in the National Basketball League, she gladly would have taken it.
Since the team’s inaugural season in 2010, the southerners have lifted the trophy three times and made the grand final on four occasions, a feat that is only bettered by the Wellington Saints in terms of success in the 2010s.
And with a win championship percentage of 33%, Bolger said she is more than satisfied with how the club has gone since it was founded.
“There are teams that have been in the league and never won it. We’ve been in there 10 years and won it three times. A 33% success rate is not too bad.”
The club was handed a licence in December 2009 after several efforts in the early 2000s to bring a NBL team to Southland failed.
At the time, however, there was still some apprehension over whether having a third sporting franchise in the region would be viable.
“We already had the Stags and already had the Sting, or the Steel as they are now, and people were saying that there is not enough room in Southland for three franchises,” Bolger said. “Well I think that all three franchises together have said ‘well yes, there is because we’re doing okay’.”
The Sharks start their 10th anniversary season against the Canterbury Rams at ILT Stadium Southland this Sunday, and Bolger admits the off-season has been successful as well as stressful.
She said she is impressed with the roster coach Judd Flavell has put together.
“I think Judd’s done a great job… probably the only concern I guess was that it took us a bit longer this year. We normally like to have most of our Kiwis and, if we can, most of our imports locked down pre-Christmas. But it took us a bit longer this year to get all the signatures that we wanted. But we got there.”
Tall Black and Melbourne United centre Alex Pledger signed on for his fourth year with the Sharks as well as Australian Jarred Weeks. Both will be joined by two more Australian signings in Todd Blanchfield and Mitch McCarron to add depth into the squad.
The team also features five Southland-based players in Jordan Murphy, Tinashe Matambanadzo, Tom Cowie, Connor Coll and veteran Andrew Wheeler who will play in his ninth season for the Sharks.
Wheeler said he had relished the opportunity to be part of the team for so long.
“From a personal point of view it’s given me the opportunity to compete everyday with Tall Blacks and Australian Boomers and American and Canadian international players. It’s exposure to a level that was never here (in Southland) before the NBL arrived. For just a local guy to be competing against those guys every night is pretty awesome that I get to do that.”
Bolger believes it to be the biggest contingent of Southland based players the team has ever seen.
“I think that the local players now realise the standard they have to be in and the commitment that is involved in being in a franchise team such as this,” Bolger said. “I mean they practice everyday. And some guys work. So you have to be prepared to come from school or work, get home, get changed, get to practice, eat late, that type of stuff. So it is a commitment. But I think now with the success that we have been having and the development opportunities that we have been able to put place for the young ones that it is becoming more of a reality for them now.”
She said the most rewarding aspect of seeing the franchise grow over the last 10 years had been seeing the talent the region had been able to help nourish towards bigger things.
“One of the biggest success that we have had is the development of the players once they get here. You might argue that you need to develop to get here but we have developed so many players who have become selected in Tall Black teams, select Tall Black touring teams, even players who have come here and gone on to become (Australian) Boomers. Like Nick Kay, Mitch Norton, Jarrad Weeks and Todd Blanchfield. Those guys have all come here and then benefited from our systems to become international players. Our own players, Reuben Te Rangi, you know bringing him through to captain the Tall Blacks, Alex Pledger to maintain his international standing, you know those are things that give me the most satisfaction.”
To celebrate the Sharks 10th anniversary, there is a special 10-year anniversary season pass available, which gives fans access to all home games as well as extra opportunities to meet the players as well as receiving a special 10th anniversary T-shirt.
Bolger said the sales of the passes were tracking well so far alongside season passes. The Sharks will play nine games at ILT Stadium Southland this season, including two against new franchise the Southern Huskies that will become the first Australian based team to play in a New Zealand-based sports competition.
“I think the first game is really going to be an exciting one,” Bolger said. “We’ve got a few things (planned). We have the banner raising for a starter for last years championship. We generally have a Kapa Haka group welcoming our crowd for the first time of the year and the visitors. We’ll have hopefully some messages from past players. Some things like that going on will make it a good game. We’ve also got a school promotion running for this first game so that we can make sure that there is a big crowd here.”
This article was originally written for The Advocate. You can read the published version here