By Colin MacGillivray

Wallan Panthers will enter the 2022 Big V basketball season with new-look senior teams but the same finals ambitions as last year.

Both the men’s and women’s division two sides have seen significant turnover, with only two men – vice-captain Jaak Ponsford and forward Lincoln Stewart – and five women returning from 2021.

Men’s coach Tim Annett said while there would be plenty of fresh faces on the court, the team expected to remain competitive and strive for finals.

Among the new players is Arcaim Lallemand, a versatile forward-centre, who replaces dynamic guard Sharif Black as the team’s USA import after Black joined championship division side McKinnon.

Guards Jordan Hockley and Abraham Solano and wing Tyler Best will join the team fresh from a premiership with Seymour in the Country Basketball League’s north-east division, helping offset the losses of star players Keenan Gorski and Leigh Saffin, who have joined Big V division one teams.

Young players from the youth men’s division two team will also be afforded senior opportunities, with the likes of Dion Stacey and Sebastian Villegas primed to step up on occasion.

Other new faces include Peter Leckie, Zac Wight and Brendan Wadwell and Jackson Wynne from the Craigeburn Eagles.

Annett said the team had gelled quickly despite the high turnover of players.

“Even though we lost a lot of top-end talent, I think bringing in a lot of youth has added a freshness to the group and a lot of new faces have driven the guys to hopefully bring a premiership to Wallan,” he said.

“Arcaim … [is] a guy who is going to fit in with the culture of the club. He’s come here with the right attitude and mentality. He’s definitely bought into the way that we want to play as a group and we’re excited for what he’s going to produce.

“I like to think we’re going to be extremely competitive and find ourselves in every game.

“I think we’ll be well known for taking care of business on the defensive end, and as we showed in our first practice match we’re going to be extremely fast-paced and move the ball quickly.

“We hope to be in finals contention again. It’s hard to say with such a young group and so many new guys coming in, but I think the competitive spirit of the guys has shown in how they’ve bought into the team.”

Youth focus for women’s team

The division two women will also turn to younger players to plug a gap left by the departure of several key contributors from last year’s team.

Among the losses are Alex Darby, sisters Megan and Karina Marasco, Jayda Hunter and Rebecca Romeo.

Sarah Scott will remain as captain, with Carly Simons, Amber Ross, Jacinta Scott and Erin Mifsud also returning.

Scott’s sister Jacinta returns to the Panthers after a stint in women’s football, with Katarina Kekez, Georgia Knight, Kaitlyn Bickerton and Kaitlyn Wakartschuk all joining the senior side.

“We’ve brought some of the youth girls up to give them some opportunities,” women’s coach Carey Papanicolaou said.

“It’s going to be a different team to last year, but they’re training hard and we’re looking forward to the season.

“I think we’ll still be competitive. We’ll be more of a running team this year. We’ve only had one practice game and we didn’t have our full squad though, so it will be hard to judge.”

The women’s and men’s division two youth league sides are also looking forward to competitive seasons after being in the finals race last year before COVID-19 restrictions brought the season to a premature end.

Women’s youth league coach Ben Whyte said he expected big things from his squad after 17 girls tried out.

He said with a full pre-season under its belt for the first time, the team could improve quickly.

“I’m really excited for our season. We’ve still got a core group from last year of Olivia and Abby Dalmau, Melissa Buckley and Katarina Kekez,” he said.

“Then we’ve got Maddie Tinetti and Tamsyn Kirk from Broadmeadows and Ruby Panstiano from Craigeburn who also played with us in the CBL over summer.

“I think all three girls will add value to our side and be in our starting line-up at various stages.”

Whyte said the team had bonded quickly and would play an up-tempo style of basketball.

“Olivia Dalmau could be one of, if not the best player in the competition this season if she stays healthy,” he said.

“Even though some of the players have only been training together for a couple of months, everybody reads each other and moves off the ball really well.

“We’re going to be a shorter side, so we’re focusing on running the ball and running teams off their feet.”

The men’s youth league side must deal with the departure of star player Ryan Philippe to championship division team Diamond Valley, but coach Jarrod Bridge believes the side has the right mix of players to remain in finals contention.

He said he was excited for inclusions like wing Wight, while Stacey and Villegas will co-captain the team.

Brody Thrum is expected to help fill the gap left by Philippe after a season of development in the CBL, and Bridge said the team’s goal was to make the playoffs.

“We were right in that mix last season. We have two conferences and the top four from each conference go through. We were third when the season ended, so that’s our bar,” he said.

“We’re looking for youth league to take that step where the players are really stepping up into the men’s teams next season.”