By Grant Richardson
After two successful years that saw Mt. Gambier finish Runners-Up in 2013 and SEABL Champions in 2014, coach Richard Hill’s desire is unwavering.
“The fire certainly burns for me because I’m getting older,” said Hill. “I see a very committed group of guys in the prime of their careers where team is more important than individual and that’s the key,” said Hill.
However, a 2-2 record to start this year was an unexpected beginning.
“The start of every season can be a little awkward with guys coming in from all over the place. Nunawading are always tough and Dandenong are really talented so the losses against them weren’t necessarily shocking.”
Since then, the Pioneers have been able to right the ship and are now a game clear on top of the South Conference after a five-game winning streak.
Their major signing in the off-season was Tyrone Lee from N-W Tasmania Thunder who filled the void left by Ben Allen.
The power forward is fitting in nicely, averaging 14.9 points and 8.7 rebounds.
“Lee was basically a straight swap for Allen but they are polar opposites in the way they play,” said Hill. “He is more of an athlete that likes to get to the rim so that has taken a bit of time to organise how it will work best for us but he has fit in from a chemistry point of view without a problem.”
Alongside Damian Johnson, the two forwards are helping Mt. Gambier to the second-most avaricious defence in the league, allowing just 74 points per game while they hold their opponents to the lowest field goal percentage (40%).
Cited as “the best defender in the competition” by Hill, Johnson’s 40 blocks puts him 14 ahead of any other player while Lee sits seventh with 14.
In the back court, five years’ experience in the NBL has served Tom Daly well as he heads Mt. Gambier from the point guard position. Sitting eighth for total assists, he has the third lowest turnover total amongst his peers while also recording the equal highest number of steals (10).
Erik Burdon has shot 36% from beyond the arc in his 100+ game career but has increased that to 47% this season on 29-62 shooting. Although that places him first among the ten players that have attempted 50+ three-point shots, Hill does not believe it is due to any extra work.
“Burdon has always been a great shooter but has been struggling with injuries in the past few seasons. [With more support] he’s now able to be more selective in his shots and his three-point percentage will only improve.”
Brad Hill rounds out the Pioneers starting five and alongside the other four, also averages 14-plus points per game. Their team mentality is exemplified by the fact they all average less than 14 shots and it is that variety that makes Mt. Gambier such a tough side to cover.
Four members of the side are 100-plus game SEABL veterans but rising through the ranks are a number of developing youngsters.
“We’re not old by any stretch but we have a group of young guys that are really learning on the job,” said Hill.
“Brad Rathjen led the scoring at the Under-18 Australian Junior Championships and is not far away from being able to play at this level. Kane DeWitt is similar. Mony Makoi is a really great athlete and Hayden Annott is coming off a four-year college career. These guys are an important part of our day-to-day work.”
Over the past two seasons, Mt. Gambier are 17-1 at the home they call ‘The Ice House’ but Hill is quick to point out their road record is also impressive, at 12-5.
The Pioneers will know exactly where they stand within the next few weeks, with four of their next five matches to be played on the road. Two games against Conference rivals Frankston and Kilsyth are included in that stretch after they face the Frankston Blues in a top versus bottom clash this Friday night.