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Cougars announce local contingent for NBL1 West Women’s season

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The Cockburn Cougars made a stirring run to the NBL1 West Women’s semi finals last year and now are delighted to announce the exciting and youthful core group of players to make up the large majority of the squad for 2022.

With the recruitment of former Perth Lynx guard Jewel Williams and current Lakeland College star Zaya Black already announced along with the returning of reigning MVP Jessie Edwards, the Cougars have now locked away the rest of the core group for the season starting April.

That group includes captain Nicole Roberts and experienced guard Haylee De Sousa along with Tia and Kahlia Morgan, Jessica Hickey, Jesni Cooper, Olivia Bassett-Scarfe and Mackenzie Stewart.

The Cougars started the inaugural 2021 NBL1 West season on fire winning six of the first eight games. Things got more challenging the rest of the regular season, but they still reached the playoffs and then delivered a stunning performance to beat the Rockingham Flames in the elimination final.

They were then able to push the Perth Redbacks in the semi finals too so there was plenty to build on from the Cougars, and now head coach Tyrone Thwaites is delighted with the group he is able to now announce to make up the majority of the squad.

“In addition to already announcing Jewel Williams and Zaya Black along with Jessie Edwards, we have a very youthful squad together for this upcoming season. We will only have five girls over the age of 22 and some of those are still to be announced,” Thwaites said.

“Of that group, it’s a very young bunch and it’s our core group for the future. Obviously with Jesni Cooper and Zaya Black returning from college quite late, and Tia Morgan and Haylee De Sousa still coming off injuries, the early part of the year will mean we have an especially young group with some of our under-18s part of it.

“It’s going to be a challenging front few weeks until we can get our whole group on deck, but we have had this crew together with our core local group for some time now. We’ve seen them really develop over the last couple of years and will excitingly keep them together for this year.”

Tia Morgan is an exciting young talent who had to overcome breaking her leg in 2021. While there are some on-going complications from that which could delay her start to 2022, Thwaites can’t wait to see what she’s able to produce when she is back to full health.

“Tia has come off a pretty challenging 12 months. She broke her leg in Round 3 against Mandurah last year on a pretty dramatic night. We got locked out of the building because the alarm went off and then when we got back in to play, she broke her leg,” Thwaites said.

“She returned in the back half of the season and we know that she’s been a really talented junior athlete for WA over a period of time. We saw what she could do in the West Coast Classic and was impactful for us late last season when she got back.

“We found out later she probably came back too early so she’s navigating some injury challenges at the moment and we’re trying to identify specifically what that is. We don’t have the clearest picture of it at this point in time, but we’re hoping to get her back in the early part of the season.

“We know she has a huge amount of potential and we see her as someone who can be a long, creative point guard and your prototype bigger point guard that we’d love to have around. But our priority right now for her is to get her back onto the floor to enjoy basketball before heading to college in August.”

Jessica Hickey got her first opportunities to play at the level last year in brief stints in the NBL1 West competition. She has continued to work hard in the off-season and now Thwaites is expecting her to grab her opportunities further in 2022.

“She is a young kid who was probably our only real youngster last year. She was only 16 years old and will play top age under-18s WABL this year. She’s someone we see a bright future for and in a lot of ways she was a lot like Taylah Simmons who we had last year,” he said.

“She’s about six-foot and is a big, strong body who is an outstanding rebounder. She still has a bit of a way to go to develop but we’re really excited to see what her future is going to be like.

“If we can get her confident with the ball in her hands, she’s the sort of under the radar athlete we’re excited to see where she can go this year.”

Haylee De Sousa now has 158 games under her belt with the Cougars and whether it’s as the point guard, as a shooter or a lockdown defender, she has plenty to offer.

That’s why she was so missed last year after requiring another knee reconstruction. However, she is on track to not miss much, if any, of 2022 and her coach can’t wait to have her back out there.

“She did her second ACL on her leg that she didn’t do it on the first time in about Round 5 or 6 last year. It was just really disappointing for Haylee last year after she had a pre-season that was enormous,” Thwaites said.

“We had a good conversation about where she fits in and she totally understood that, and she’s an outstanding shooter and defender. She came in with that mindset and had a ripper start to the year shooting something stupid like 58 per cent across the first three rounds.

“Then unfortunately we lost her to injury but she’s determined to get back. There’s never a good time to do an ACL but she did do it at a time that probably enables her to get back in the early part of this season.

“She’s going crazy with her rehab and she is an important part of our club. We really just want to see her get a few years of exciting basketball under her belt. She is going to be a big in for us given how well she can shoot the ball.”

Jesni Cooper is another returning for the Cougars in 2022 having had her moments last year including a career-best 18 points against the Lakeside Lightning. She has since returned to college in Hawaii, but will be a key piece for Cockburn once back down under.

“Jesni returns from college late April. She is someone we’ve seen huge growth from in the past 12 months,” Thwaites said.

“By the time she went to college in the last round of the season she was flying. She started a number of games and was shooting the ball very well.

“We know she’s a strong body who can guard a position up, and at only 21 this year, she’s got enormous potential and will be a good player for a long time for us in this league.”

Nicole Roberts will again be captain of the Cougars in 2022 as she continues to extend her lead as the all-time games leader in the women’s competition for the club.

The 312-game stalwart is far from just that veteran leader, Thwaites was delighted with what she also produced on the court in 2021 and is looking for more of the same in 2022.

“Nic has played over 300 games, the most of any female athlete at our club, and she’s a good friend of mine as well,” he said.

“She’s been involved at all levels of the club, she’s coached WABL, she has reffed, she’s a director on our board and she has just been impactful on all levels as well as being our NBL1 captain.

“We want to keep her as long as we can and I would argue her last season was the best she’s had in five years at the age of 31.

“All the numbers reflect that as well so as long as we can get productivity out of her and have her continuing to impart knowledge both on and off the field to our kids, we’ve got an absolute gem in Nic.”

Kahlia Morgan now has 68 games under her belt at this level and she is someone that Thwaites not only sees as being able to deliver impressive production in 2022, but to also continue to develop into that future leader.

“Kahlia is a really exciting one for me. She is somebody who we tout as a future leader of our program. She is only 21 years old, turning 22 this year,  and is someone who we’ve seen a lot of potential for over a period of time,” Thwaites said.

“Across the West Coast Classic, she didn’t have the greatest year in terms of shooting the ball but we knew she could and she proved that last year.

“She was probably our most consistent athlete off the bench averaging 15 to 18 minutes, but later in the season when we lost Tia and Haylee, she ended up starting across our biggest games in the finals series.

“She was massive against Rockingham in our elimination final hitting three critical threes. She’s an athlete that I have so much trust in and respect for, that’s why I see her as a future leader. I make an argument for her being one of the more improved players in the league in 2022.”

Olivia Bassett-Scarfe had to bide her time early in her career behind the experienced brigade at the Mandurah Magic, but during the West Coast Classic she showed a glimpse into her potential ahead of joining the Cougars in 2021.

Now Thwaites is excited to see what she can do in her second season with Cockburn after delivering 4.3 points and 2.2 rebounds last season.

“Olivia crossed over from Mandurah at the start of 2021 and it’s always going to be difficult when you change clubs. It’s always going to be a challenge in your first 12 months but she took that in her stride and it was really positive that we got to see a lot of the good stuff from her,” he said.

“We know she can shoot the ball really well, she’s a good rebounder and there are different areas of her game that we really want to focus in on with her and improve this year.

“The second year at a new club should always be easier because you have a better perspective and understanding of how everything works, and you know the coach and your teammates.

“We have spoken about enhancing her strengths which is the way she shoots the ball and her ability to rebound so we want her to have that focus on the floor for longer. I think we’ll see a much improved Olivia Bassett-Scarfe this year.”

Then there is the daughter of the master coach, Andy, Mackenzie Stewart. Thwaites is delighted to welcome her into the NBL1 squad for the 2022 season having seen how hard she’s worked to get this opportunity.

“She is a fun one for us and this is the first time she’s been contracted after being part of our championship women’s team and program for three years,” Thwaites said.

“She hasn’t been contracted until this year, but she’s really earnt this through pure hard work. She is somebody who just comes on the floor whether it be at training or during championship games, and gives everything.

“I don’t mean that from a superficial point of view, she will just hound people defensively and has gone away and got herself in the best shape of her life.

“That’s the sort of athlete you want who is going to continue to make the athletes in front of her better which helps her development, and to pave the way for our juniors to see what hard work looks like. She epitomises that.”

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