Cooper reflects on 2023 Cougars season

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In many ways the 2023 NBL1 West season of the Cockburn Cougars men was the opposite to the historic women’s performance, but coach Andrew Cooper has good reason to be optimistic moving forward and of what could have been still this year.

The Cougars women have made history this season producing the club’s best ever record for a Cockburn team at the end of the regular season, claiming a first ever regular season championship, and now being one win away from what would be a first ever Grand Final appearance.

A lot of that is good planning, good coaching and good recruiting, but it also takes a degree of luck especially in terms of keeping healthy and having your full team out on the court more often than not.

That’s a luxury that the Cougars men weren’t afforded throughout the 2023 season and the end result was a frustrating finish of ending up in ninth place with a 9-13 record because they still weren’t too far away despite everything that went wrong along the way.

Cooper is the last person as a coach to make excuses, but the reality was if Seva Chan wasn’t limited to nine games, Luke Phillips to 11 and Nathan Pond to 13 that things could have been considerably different.

That’s your starting point guard, power forward and back up big that the Cougars missed for a significant part of the season, but at the end of the day there were plenty of positives and Cooper can’t fault the efforts of his players.

“I don’t want to sit here and make excuses because we still were in positions to win a number of games that we didn’t, but of course I think if we were full strength like most of the teams are who are still in finals, I think we’d definitely be still playing now,” Cooper said.

“It was a season that, and I’ve used this analogy before, where it was the old would have, could have, should have but didn’t type of season.

“Everything that could have gone wrong probably did go wrong so it’s hard to sort of pull out too many positives other than the fact than we can sit back and know we were there and abouts for a lot of the games considering the personnel that we had.

“But at the start of the year with the line-up we had we thought we would still be top four, but it can be luck of the draw with your imports and we think we got it right to a certain extent.

“But then when everything started crumbling around it, it sort of made life a bit tougher. It was certainly disappointing overall but it’s also allowed me to reflect on where we need to be better moving forward.”

It was a dramatic season for the Cougars right to the end as well.

If you go back to the very start and Cockburn was playing catch up from the beginning losing the opening five matches before the first win came at home to the Lakeside Lightning.

From there, there were winning opportunities missed against the Joondalup Wolves (twice), Perth Redbacks (twice), the East Perth Eagles and the Willetton Tigers along the way.

If even three of those six games went the other way, it would have meant Cockburn made finals once again and it so easily could have been different, but it all led up to a dramatic final game against the Kalamunda Eastern Suns at Wally Hagan Stadium.

Both teams had been right in finals contention all season, but by the time the last round came around it was just ninth position up for grabs.

That didn’t stop both teams putting on quite a show including Joe Cook-Green hitting 54 points for the Eastern Suns, but the Cougars dug deep to score the 132-124 overtime win, and Cooper was relieved to end things on a high.

“It was funny because I was talking to Seb and Rob Huntington afterwards, and we all felt like it was the atmosphere like a finals game and we were playing for ninth and 10th,” he said.

“It was hard for me to get too excited on the sideline because in my mind we were playing for ninth but of course we still didn’t want to lose. It was a fun game of basketball obviously with Joe Cook-Green doing what he did and our guys just digging in and not wanting to lose on their home court in that last game. It was good fun.”

Cooper will always be convinced that a fully healthy team with a starting five of Courtney Alexander II, Luke Phillips, Gavin Field, Taj Benning and Seva Chan backed up by Kieran Berry, Josh Hunt, Keegan Phillips, Nathan Pond and Hayden Bell was more than capable this season.

However, the reality was there were only four of 22 games all season long where all those players were available to Cooper, but he would never call into question the efforts his players put in.

“I think our Aussie contingent are as good as any when we’re fit and firing so again it’s just a matter of finding the extra pieces that get us to the next level,” Cooper said.

“I know those guys pretty well now and they never want to lose obviously and they do give their all. There was a couple of games where they just had nothing left in the tank because they were completely fatigued mentally and physically.

“As much as this season took it out of me certainly mentally, it’s done the same for them because they’ve been on the ride with me and they pushed themselves as hard as they could physically.”

Cooper’s thoughts have obviously already turned towards planning for 2024 and one area of focus will be to get better defensively, but ultimately just a bit of lucky and players staying healthy mean that he already had a team that isn’t too far away.

“I definitely feel that we’re not far away looking towards next year. I’ll sit back in the off-season with the coaches and we’ll analyse where we went wrong, and what we need to be better at,” Cooper said.

“Obviously the biggest thing is staying fit and healthy because it doesn’t matter who we get, if we’re not healthy it’s always going to be tough.

“Some things you just can’t control and that’s one of them, but I think if we can just find a couple of pieces that fit the system perfectly at both ends of the floor then we should be alright. I think defensively this year was our biggest issue and I feel like we can be in the right place especially if we get better in that area.”

It certainly has been two different tales for the Cougars teams this season but Cooper has enjoyed watching how well the women have done to already make history, and hopes that it continues for two more weeks, and even three if they qualify for the National Finals.

“There’s always got to be a bit of luck when you win a championship and they are tracking in the right direction,” Cooper said.

“Tyrone has done a great job with recruiting and he’s got really good pieces who fit the system that they play in, but of course if one or two of his top players went down it would have a big impact and it would be the same if Ryan Petrik lost two of his top Rockingham players.

“If most teams lose two or three of their top players it makes life very difficult. But the women are flying and are a red hot chance which is great to see, and it’s great for the club.”

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