Bound for a debut season in the WNBA, Jayco Opals centre/forward Marianna Tolo has one very important item to check off on her to do list before joining the LA Sparks next month.
Tolo, and her French team Bourges Basket are aiming for a 13th Ligue Féminine title.
“I’m excited to be headed for the grand final,” the 25-year-old says. “Hopefully we can win a championship before I leave.”
Bourges Basket begin their grand final series against recently-crowned Euro Cup champions, Villeneuve d’Ascq on April 24th with game two on the 26th with the tie-breaker slated for the 28th. Tolo will be hoping that game three won’t be required.
Across the regular season Bourges Basket “killed it,” according to Tolo with just one defeat from 26 games. While Tolo’s run into the finals was somewhat derailed with an injury to her left ankle that left her sidelined for three weeks, she’s confident that she can maintain the form that saw her average 10.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
“I am just happy to be back on the court and competing for the girls in the finals,” Tolo admits.
Bourges is a medieval town in the Loire Valley, in the heart of France around three hours’ drive north of Lyon and home to around 70,000 people. It’s a long way from Mackay where Tolo grew up and where her basketball ambition grew.
“As a junior, I was so fortunate to have parents who drove me everywhere. I was involved in as much as I could be,” she explains. “I had some great coaches that helped me along the way and I think that’s really important to have that good connection – them wanting to teach you and then you wanting to learn.”
Representing Queensland North in Basketball Australia’s Australian Junior Championships, Tolo earned her spot at the Centre of Excellence of Canberra and led to her debut in the WNBL for the Capitals in 2008/09 season that went on to win back-to-back championships.
“Playing WNBL was a great experience as well because you have to juggle work and basketball,” she explains. “It’s not always easy but you try and do your best.”
It was during this time that Tolo completed her degree in sports coaching and exercise science at the University of Canberra.
In 2012, Tolo headed to France to join Aix en Provence linking up with former AIS teammate Cayla Francis.
“I knew that there had been quite a few Australians who had come over here and they’d always had good things to say about it,” Tolo says. “I knew it was a tough competition and they treat you pretty well. I just wanted to give it a go.”
Tolo is adamant that without her experience at the Centre of Excellence, there is no way she could have made it on the international stage.
“The experiences I had and the lessons I learnt – we had a good bunch of girls and we worked really well together.”
Following her first season in the Ligue Féminine with Provence, Tolo was contracted by Bourges and now counts Jayco Opals vice-captain Laura Hodges as a teammate.
“It’s been really nice to have her [Hodges] here,” Tolo says, with most teams bringing in internationals recruits. “I pretty much understand all the French terminology for basketball now. The coach will speak a bit of both – if something really important she’ll try and speak to us in English but she talks mostly in French. All the girls can speak English so they’re always available to help us out if we need anything.”
With French superstar Céline Dumerc and a number of players from the national squad on the Bourges roster, the team regularly packs out its soon to be expanded 3000-seat stadium. The team’s past success is paired with significant expectation. Last season Bourges was expected to come out on top against Lattes-Montpellier in the finals only to get rolled in the decider. It’s not an experience Tolo wants to repeat.
“It’s really tough,” she admits. “Even though we only lost one game this year, you have to come ready for each game because it’s a really tough competition. Everyone comes to play, especially with Bourges because we’re one of the Euroleague teams so we always have a target on our back.”
Hopefully having celebrated a Ligue Féminine championship victory, Tolo will head to the US to join her new LA Sparks teammates for a training camp mid-May.
“I’m excited to have a new experience and to play in another different country; to play with and against some really good players,” she says. “I’ll be lucky to play with Erin Phillips – that will be good for us and our Aussie connection.”
Upon signing with the Sparks, Tolo was described as an ‘international veteran’. It’s something that makes Tolo laugh but it comes off the back of two senior world championships for the Jayco Opals along with her stint in France. Tolo is helpful that the experience both in France as well as in the US, will go some way to earning Olympic selection in 2016, having just missed out on London. Which brings us to the other item on Tolo’s to do list.
“To make the team to go to the Olympics has been my dream – it’s everything I’ve always wanted to do,” she says. “Missing out on the London team has made me hungrier, which is a positive. I’ll be doing everything I can to make it and fight for my spot. There’s no guarantees with the Australian team – there’s so many good players and big names. It’s always a fight and the team is always different.”