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Depth behind stars has Clayden excited for Cougars in 2024

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New Cockburn Cougars NBL1 West Men’s coach Mark Clayden is looking forward to the challenge of coaching at this level again while also being excited by what the group is going to be capable of if things start to click.

Clayden has coached at SBL/NBL1 before but that was almost a lifetime ago at the Rockingham Flames. While he has been still coaching in between including being WABL Coach of the Year in 2019, he knows it’s a big leap to come back and coach at NBL1 West level again.

That’s especially the case when you have a squad at the Cougars that includes NBL experienced players Rhys Vague, Gavin Field, Kyle Armour and Hunter Clarke, more experience with Seva Chan and Hayden Bell, an import Demetrius Morant and Josh Hunt, Nathan Pond and Charlie Dimmock who will have an impact.

At the same time, having a playing squad like that is something that Clayden is thankful for being able to work with. Now the work begins to get the best out of everyone starting in the season-opener this Thursday night at home to the Mandurah Magic.

How the group has come together

Clayden couldn’t ask for more in terms of the playing squad he has built with the Cougars this season.

To have the majority of the group together for a lot of the pre-season has been a big help too but when Clayden looks at having the experience of Field, Chan and Armour, the potency and all-round talents of Vague, Clarke and Hunt, and some exciting young talent like Dimmock, and there’s plenty for him to be enthused about.

“We’re really happy with the way this has come together,” Clayden said.

“It has been a targeted plan and I think we’re pretty happy to come out of it with what we have, and then with Kyle being an added bonus late in the piece.

“We’re obviously really keen to get Demetrius on court once he arrives within the next week and getting him acclimatised with us to see what he can do.

“He is very excited to get here and he has told us that he hasn’t truly been coached for two years because he normally just rocks up to play, so we are looking forward to him getting here.”

The improved depth in 2024

When you have talent like Vague, Clarke, Morant, Field, Chan, Armour and Hunt, it’s easy for them to attract a lot of the attention from this Cougars team coming into the 2024 season, but what has Clayden even more excited is the depth beyond those bigger names.

He is especially happy with the way the likes of Dimmock, Pond, Bell and Clifford will be pushing the rest of the team to make sure the Cougars are better as a whole, and that’s exactly the type of depth he wanted to have in the group.

“The most impressive thing about our last pre-season game was our younger guys which can get lost because of our other guys,” Clayden said.

“Ducky is such a different guy to coach this year, Josh Hunt has improved his defence so much where he can cause havoc, and Charlie Dimmock is a different kid altogether coming back from under-20s.

“Even Hayden Bell, he might cop a lot of flak but his communication is so awesome and he executes so well. So as a group we do have those older guys and they are doing what we expect them to, but for us to be really successful long-term and even in our Champ Men, we’re taking that seriously.

“Josh has volunteered to play those games, Matty Clifford the same thing because he wants to work on things to be a better leader and player for us. We want to make sure that our eight to 14 players are really pushing our top guys this year.”

Feeling now with the season so close

Now that the reality is sinking in that the season-opener on Thursday night against Mark Utley’s Mandurah Magic is just days away, Clayden can’t wait to get things rolling playing for points.

“I’m feeling excited now. You put a bit of a plan together and you go through the pre-season and play a couple of pre-season games, and wonder how it’s all going to go,” he said.

“But now when you are playing the real deal and come up against someone like Utley who is going to have his team prepared, it’s a good challenge first up to see where we’re at and whether we’ve got it right or if we need to make some changes really.

“It’s good to be at this point to see if all this planning has actually come to fruition pretty much.”

Final preparations falling into place

Now that the pre-season work has been done, now that the Cougars have three pre-season hit outs against real opposition behind them, all Clayden can do now is finalise preparations for the season-opener and hope that things are in place to make a good start.

Clayden knows that there might be clashes with him and assistant coach Grant Davey with the playing group and especially the leaders at times as everyone finds their feet, but he sees that as a positive providing they are all pulling in the right direction coming into the season.

“Our preparations have been good. I think getting Rhys here a little bit earlier and just having him for a week just to watch training and start fitting in was good,” Clayden said.

“That gave him the chance to sit back a little bit and watch and take notes to learn about the team he’s coming into. Obviously he knows Kyle, Gav and Seva pretty well, but it was good for him to get to know the other guys and he’s done a really good job getting to know everyone.

“Obviously when you bring in so many new players it will be a challenge and we do have a great leadership group, but it’s about making sure they have roles in that and make sure all the personalities gel.

“That’s going to be the challenge for us just to get everyone to feel comfortable with what they are doing, and what GD and I keep stressing to them is having clarity of roles.

“We’ve been really happy with the level of communication with our guys and we have a lot of experience, and it’s about being a group moving forward and empowering all our players to have their say as we try to speed up the process of having everyone feeling comfortable.”

The feeling of coaching at this level again

It’s been quite the journey for Clayden to get back to coaching at senior state level again after his previous stint at the Rockingham Flames.

He wasn’t sure if he would ever do it again, but he had continued to enjoy coaching at a junior level on various teams, and now is excited to be at the Cougars ahead of the NBL1 West season and learning to deal with everything that comes with coaching men again.

“I have to be honest I was a bit nervous for our first game against Joondalup a couple of weeks ago just being at home and there was that air of expectation even for a pre-season game,” Clayden said.

“Then when people found out Rhys wasn’t playing it was like letting the air out of the tyres, and then our second game wasn’t great. But our last game was a lot better and for me it’s about getting that understanding again of coaching men after coaching juniors for so long.

“When you’re working with those kids there’s some honesty and for me it’s going to be a challenge of finding that right way of communicating with all our guys whether it’s Rhys or Gav, and coaching adults again.

“It’s going to be different for me and it’s going to be a day by day process with the different personalities we have, and I’m loving the way you have to coach different people in different ways.

“It has really just freshened me up that little bit and I’m looking forward to getting to Thursday and getting started to see what these guys can do. I’m sure there will be clashes between me and players along the way, but we’ll look to embrace that and turn it into a positive.”

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