Sports editor CAMERON WHITELEY travelled with the North West Thunder to Mount Gambier on Friday for the club’s SEABL South Conference semi-final. Here is how he saw the trip:
TALKING IT UP: North West Thunder coach Phil Thomas instructs his players during a time-out on Friday night in Mount Gambier. Picture: TREVOR JACKSON, of The Border Watch.
3.10pm – Thunder players and officials congregate at gate 14 awaiting their Regional Express flight to Mount Gambier. Salad rolls, muesli bars and fruit are the fare of choice. The team has earlier shared a meal on the Coast before flying out of Burnie Airport.
3.35pm – The Thunder depart Melbourne bound for Mount Gambier.
4.15pm (note time difference, South Australian time zone) – Arrival in Mount Gambier. Coach Phil Thomas explains that this flight was much smoother than the last time the Thunder ventured across the Victorian-South Australian border, just three weeks ago. Inclement weather, windy conditions and subsequent flight delays meant the team didn’t arrive at Mount Gambier until well after 5pm, throwing out its preparation for that match. The Thunder lost on that occasion, but hopes are high this time around for a more positive result.
4.30pm – A short bus trip to the team’s accommodation and the players have a few hours to themselves. Some opt for a short nap.
6.15pm – Players and team officials gather in room six to talk things over. Coach Thomas does most of the talking, running through match-ups, team rules and which opposition players to watch. Senior player Nick Haywood chimes in, imploring the team, especially the younger players, to play with courage and not second-guess themselves. There is a real sense of belief among the group as they pile into the team bus that when they return to this parking spot, they will have done what no team has been able to do this season, beating the Pioneers on their home court.
6.45pm – Living up to its name as ‘‘The Icehouse’’, the stadium sure is cold. The Thunder players quickly get changed into their on-court kits and have a preliminary shoot around to get the blood pumping.
7.30pm – Final instructions are issued from coach Thomas in the Thunder change rooms as the crowd begins to file in. They return to the court for a proper warm up and while this is an away game, AC/DC’s Thunderstruck rings out, a regular choice at home games at Ulverstone.
8pm – By tip-off, the music is blaring, the venue is very nearly packed with Pioneers fans, and children are eagerly blowing kazoos. It’s a shrill and irritating noise. There is a reason Mount Gambier hasn’t been beaten here this year. The crowd is like a sixth man. Spurred on by the encouraging court announcer, the fans are in full voice and, as is tradition, they stand for tip-off and will remain doing so until the Pioneers score.
8.10pm – The Thunder stun the home side, silencing the crowd as it races to an 11-4 lead in the opening minutes. Everything is clicking and its transition game is damaging.
8.35pm – Mount Gambier roars back into the game after the Thunder led by eight at quarter-time. The Pioneers take the lead by half-time and the crowd is right into it. Flamboyant American Tyrone Lee is becoming a villain with the home-town supporters, who are offering him some advice from the comfort of the cheap seats.
9.30pm – This one is a cliffhanger. Basket for basket. The Thunder finds itself up by four mid-way through the final quarter, but can’t make it a three, or four possession game. The door remains open, and the Pioneers make the Thunder pay. Their star-studded line-up cannot be kept quiet all night and a Ben Allen three-pointer pushes the margin out of the Thunder’s reach. The crowd is in a frenzy while the Thunder trudge off, knowing it has missed a golden opportunity to bring the South Conference grand final back to Ulverstone.
10pm – Haywood and coach Thomas sit outside the change rooms visibly disappointed with what has just occurred. It is a missed opportunity, but Thomas says there are positives. The Thunder led for more than 70 per cent of the match, but just couldn’t execute down the stretch.
11pm – The bus trip back is almost silent. The players are flat. A short meeting back in room six, and Thomas says it’s important not to dwell on the loss. He is disappointed at the result, yet proud at the effort. He says the team must simply get better if it is to return to Mount Gambier in two weeks. Thomas says it is no fluke the Thunder won 17 games during the regular season, and must now prove it belongs in a grand final.
8am – The team rises for breakfast and the mood is much more upbeat than nine hours ago. The disappointment is still there, but there is a renewed sense of hope that the Thunder still has a lot to offer this year. Plenty of banter over breakfast and quizmaster Haywood tests the knowledge of team members, reading out the daily paper’s quiz questions. This team wants to be back here in two weeks, but it has some work to do yet. A home final awaits and conversation turns to the type of crowd which could be expected at Ulverstone in seven days’ time. The team wants the same level of atmosphere and crowd support as the night before, with a raucous home crowd getting the Pioneers over the line.
9.45am – The bus trip back to the airport takes less than 10 minutes. After a short flight delay, the plane back to Melbourne is up in the air.
11.30am (note time zone change) – Touchdown in Melbourne. Two-thirds of the team remain in Melbourne for another day, while the remainder have an afternoon flight back to the Coast. A Hawthorn-Geelong AFL blockbuster is on Saturday night’s menu for those who are staying over. By now, the Thunder teammates are smiling, joking and have a renewed sense of hope. They may have lost this time, but the championship dream is still alive.
The Thunder hosts Kilsyth on Saturday night at Ulverstone in an elimination final, with the winner to play Mount Gambier in the South Conference final the following weekend.
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