By Matt Styles
Last February, having reached their third cup final in the space of twelve months, things were looking highly promising for Durham Palatinates, but fast forward a year and there is far less cause for optimism.
Following the cancellation of the 2019-20 season due to Covid-19 the club are finally back playing at the Sports and Wellbeing Park, though joining late to the party has come with a whole host of difficulties. At present the WBBL (Women’s British Basketball League) table has strange complexion to it with Newcastle Eagles, just 19 miles down the road, having played double the number of games as them.
These turbulent times have brought all momentum from last year’s fruitful campaign to a grinding halt. To put it lightly it has been a stuttering start to the season for the Palatinates, with five losses from five despite some promising individual performances.
“We’re having to play our normal eight-month season in basically two months and two weeks. It’s a new team pretty much, with very little preparation,” reflects head coach Lee Davie. “The league have done what they can to be as flexible as possible while teams try to fulfil all WBBL Cup, Trophy and League fixtures, but it’s had its ups and downs with the varying regional tiers system across the country.
“The University based programmes within the WBBL have had added Covid procedures that we have had to factor in, we then have two teams that are based in Scotland and Wales which are operating within different Government guidelines from the teams in England. On top of all that you have over 200 players and staff that all have their own beliefs on what is best for their own personal family health and wellbeing that need to be taken into consideration.”
In this unorthodox and unprecedented reality, senior players have been called upon to ‘manage the load’ and aid with this colossal logistical juggling act. Besides arranging fixtures, one fundamental necessity is monitoring the mental and physical wellbeing of the players, many of whom being students with academic and social commitments.
Four undergraduate players have had to make the step up to the first team this season, which demonstrates the impact that the pandemic has had on recruitment. Though four new recruits have come through the door in the form of Gerda Morkunaite, Ava Patchesa, Goretti Hurtado Barbeito and Lies Van Straaten, the club lacks the financial resources that would ordinarily be at their disposal.
“Covid’s only real impact upon recruitment was our lack of budget,” notes Davie. “There was still a high demand from players domestically and overseas that wanted to study and play, but financially we just weren’t in a position to fund the programme as we normally would.”
For all of this, however, Durham’s Head of Basketball remains optimistic and is confident about the club emerging in a ‘better place’ down the line. As a vastly experienced coach at the highest level, Davie relishes the prospect of turning the tide and finding that all-important winning formula with a young squad in exceptional circumstances.
“It’s early days, but there are a lot of positive signs of the younger players finding their voice within the team and their play is improving week by week. They are getting a lot of experiences that are very new to them, they’re learning first-hand about the pressures and expectations that come with these experiences. It’s going to take some time, but we’re going in the right direction and there are a lot of positive signs on a daily basis with them.
“The consistent run of games could be really good for us now to take the steps to become the team we’re capable of being, we’re playing a different style of basketball this year and doing some different things that teams will have to prepare for. And if they don’t it could work out well for us.”
Though Davie laments the enduring reality that support has been limited to the impersonal sphere of online live streaming, all signs point toward a better tomorrow as his side aim to find some cohesion on the court and navigate through what has been baptism of fire since returning to Maiden Castle.
Rather than despairing, Davie chooses to focus on the silver linings. The development of a more sophisticated streaming service, he hopes, will attract a broader student fan base, as will the new deal that has been struck with Sky Sports to broadcast major finals.
Above all, though, he sees the challenges that the pandemic has caused as a new and exciting opportunity to respond to.
“To be coaching at the highest level professionally in our country is such a great experience, I love the weekly challenge that each opposition team brings and helping to prepare our students to achieve their goals.
“One of the best parts to our sport is that you can do so much with a ball and basket that we’ve been able to develop and grow so much through these early stages with our limited numbers.
“I’m genuinely excited to see the team’s development over the next nine weeks as they come together as a team and things click into place for us. There’s nothing better to see.”
Image: Durham Palatinates