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The team known as Illawarra Hawks Red may have claimed bragging rights in Waratah League Division 1, but ultimately it was the whole Illawarra that showed its dominance in New South Wales wheelchair basketball in 2023.

 Illawarra White and Illawarra Red were destined to meet in the Grand Final after finishing first and second at the end of the regular season before accounting for Blacktown and the All Stars respectively in the semi finals.

Red used Saturday’s semi final to practice a game plan they would bring to the decider, shutting down Division 1 leading scorer Brett Stibners by applying a full court press all game. 

“We knew they were always going to be very dangerous with the likes of Sticky (Brett Stibners) and Nick (Taylor) so even though both are retired from international competition, they’re still two of the best shooters in the world so you can’t approach a team like that too lightly so we started preparing in the semi final in terms of how we would defend them full court and it paid dividends today,” said Illawarra Red’s Tristan Knowles following the Grand Final.

It worked, with Stibners limited to 16 points while at the other end Knowles went off with 41 points including 8 three pointers to lead Red to a 67-55 victory while claiming Finals MVP.

Illawarra Red Cropped 2023

“I think the most pleasing thing was seeing both Illawarra teams make the Grand Final. We’re a very close team, we spend a lot of time together, but when we cross the white line it gets pretty competitive and pretty fiery.”

At the beginning of the year, the Just Better Care Roller Hawks campaigned to make sure its players played for the Illawarra in the NSW Waratah League, a move away from the 2022 model that saw players “drafted” to other associations. Recognising the disparity in talent due to the Roller Hawks long reign in the national league, it was agreed that the club, in partnership and under the banner of the Illawarra Basketball Association, would field two teams, with players evenly split.

“First and foremost we wanted to see our players play for the Illawarra,” says Roller Hawks Club President Geoff Adams.

“We’ve worked hard to grow the game in our region and we wanted that to be reflected in the state league.”

“I felt it was important that players who train together should be able to play together. Players and squads develop by knowing each other through consistently training together.”

It put the Illawarra at a distinct advantage even with players split across two sides, but the difference between the Illawarra sides and their Division 1 rivals wasn’t huge as shown by results when star players from Illawarra Red and
Illawarra White were missing.

Tristan Knowles and Shawn Russell missed Round 1 of the Waratah League due to the World Championships, leaving Illawarra Red with three losses to start the competition. The absence of Brett Stibners in the final round saw Illawarra Hawks Red turn an 8 point loss in Round 3 into a 30 point win the following week.

Illawarra Red also held an advantage in the Grand Final with Illawarra White’s Hannah Dodd, Steve Elliott and Jarrod Emeny having to finish their season early due to overseas commitments. 

“I think overall, we got the balance of our teams right.” says Adams. “Illawarra White were at a disadvantage at the business end of the season but if you throw those players back in, the regular season results show the advantage tips back the other way.”

“As for the rest of the division, the only way you bridge any gap is by playing against tougher competition more, not less.”

The two Illawarra sides also dominated the season awards with Hannah Dodd (White) named best 1 point player, Luke Pople (Red) named best 2 point player, Steve Elliott (White) named best 3 point player and Shawn Russell (Red) named best 4 point player. 

White’s Pablo Jimenez was named Coach of the Year and Brett Stibners was named overall MVP.

Knowles and Adams hope the Waratah League will continue to be embraced and provide more opportunity to develop talent, including at the Roller Hawks.

“We as a club knew there would be a really large development piece to it which is why we decided to split in two and I guess it’s a responsibility of our club to continue to compete in it  so that we do raise the quality of wheelchair basketball across New South Wales, it’s only going to produce more and more stars in the sport,” says Knowles.

“One of my biggest takeaways from this year is seeing the players that are coming through the ranks.  Seeing what Manly have done in a very short space of time is tremendous,” adds Adams.

“We’ve been very blessed to have a great core for a long time, but we want to make sure that continues by bringing through the next generation. The next Shawn Russell, the next Luke Pople. Having the Waratah League helps bridge the gap between development and elite but we need to make sure we’re using it to bring through our own young players.”

Adams believes the true test is what’s next for Illawarra Wheelchair Basketball.

“I’m incredibly proud to see a championship banner come to the Illawarra but I’ll be even prouder of a banner we win in five or ten years time or whenever, with a group of players that we’ve brought through from scratch, and who have only known a pathway that includes Waratah League.”