THE WNBL season tip-off is just around the corner so get up to speed with the contenders - and pretenders - for the Bendigo Spirit's crown.
Adelaide Lightning – Last season – 3rd (18-6), lost elimination semi-final
Can Adelaide's ageing group cover the massive loss of two-time league MVP Suzy Batkovic to Townsville?
British import Azania Stewart has some big shoes to fill, but she won't have to do it all herself.
Adelaide still has quality on its roster.
Jenni Screen, Laura Hodges and Jess Foley (Townsville) might all be north of 30-years-old, but they also have varying degrees of international experience.
That trio could claim to be in their prime when compared to team-mate Jo Hill, who turned 40 in June.
Relatively youthful guards Angela Marino (27) and Amy Lewis (27), plus centre Nadeen Payne (20) will need to do plenty of the heavy lifting for Adelaide to be a contender.
The Lightning must also improve its shocking finals record.
Adelaide has lost all three of its finals in the past two seasons.
Prediction – 6th
Bendigo Spirit – 1st (21-3), won grand final 71-57 over Townsville
The Bendigo Spirit sets out on its quest for back-to-back championships with its strongest-ever squad.
Bendigo has held onto its tight-knit starting five from last season, with Gabe Richards, Kelly Wilson and Kelsey Griffin arguably in career-best form.
Chelsea Aubry and Kristi Harrower might take some time to hit their peak, but their experience will be just as crucial this season as the last.
Harrower’s drive to finish her illustrious career on a high note will surely keep the Spirit focused.
The additions of Elyse Penaluna and Sara Blicavs shows what success can do for a club.
In years gone by Bendigo has battled to attract big name players, but not anymore.
If Penaluna can regain full fitness she has the ability to be one of the WNBL’s star talls.
Blicavs, 20, seems destined for a distinguished Opals career and her inside-outside game covers the loss of Renae Camino, who struggled to make an impact last season.
On the bench, Maddie Garrick, the under-rated Chantella Perera and Tessa Lavey will be hungry to prove themselves worthy of court time.
Sweet-shooting Heather Oliver comes back into the fold and joins veteran duo Jane Chalmers and Andrea Wilson, plus Ebony Antonio, as bench support.
Spirit coach Bernie Harrower seemingly has all the ingredients to win another championship, so can he recreate the recipe for success?
One thing is for sure, Bendigo’s opponents will be hungry to spoil the Spirit’s party this season.
Prediction – 1st
Canberra Capitals – 8th (7-17)
The departure of superstar Lauren Jackson, who didn’t play a game last season due to a chronic hamstring injury, looks to have freed-up plenty of funds at the Capitals.
And instead of ploughing most of the dough into one big name, coach Carrie Graf has brought in a bevy of top players.
Abby Bishop has found her way back to Canberra from France, while six-time WNBL championship-winning point guard Natalie Hurst returns home from Hungary.
French import Isabelle Strunc is a welcome addition to Canberra’s back-court, which will again be marshalled by the inspirational Jess Bibby, originally from Kyabram.
Young forward Carley Mijovic is a super signing for Canberra, which will send-out a classy starting five, but could struggle for depth on the pine.
Prediction – 5th
Dandenong Rangers – 2nd (19-5), lost preliminary final
Bookmakers have put their money on Dandenong to win the title, despite the Rangers being without pregnant star Kathleen MacLeod.
US import Leilani Mitchell replaces MacLeod and the Rangers will be hoping for a seamless transition in the key playmakers’ role.
Rising stars Steph Cumming and Carley Mijovic have both walked out on the Rangers, but Dandenong showed its depth by winning the WNBL’s pre-season tournament, the Spring Shield.
That win came without Mitchell or outstanding Opals forward Jenna O’Hea, either.
Dandenong still boasts a wealth of experience and should have a burning desire to clamber back to the top after an unexpectedly early finals exit last season.
Prediction – 2nd
Logan Thunder – 6th (8-16)
Just getting to the season tip-off has been an achievement for the Logan Thunder.
It became clear last week that the club was in serious danger of folding, but a concerted survival campaign pulled the Queensland club from the mire at the last minute.
The league will be better for it.
Logan has emerged as one of the smokeys of the season and played-off in the Spring Shield final.
The Thunder’s line-up is solid without being spectacular and it has kept its core group of key players, including WNBA import Laurie Koehne.
Logan isn’t bursting with star power, but as the Spirit showed last season there’s nothing like the threat of extinction to unite a team towards a common goal.
Keep a weather-eye on the Thunder.
Prediction – 7th
Melbourne Boomers – 4th (10-14)
To say things didn’t go as planned for the Melbourne Boomers, previously Bulleen, last year would be an understatement.
A talent-laden squad was earmarked as a genuine title contender, but just couldn’t get the job done.
However, the departure of coach Tom Maher to China, replaced by Guy Molloy, could inspire Melbourne.
The Boomers still boast the likes of Australian Opals star Rachel Jarry, two-time Spirit MVP Tess Madgen and Knox’s SEABL grand final MVP Rebecca Allen, but will need some better luck this campaign to return to finals.
Prediction – 4th
Sydney Uni Flames – 7th (8-16)
There’s a touch of the unknown about Sydney this year, but what is certain is that the Flames will have plenty of size.
American imports Ashley Gayle (193cm) and Kathleen Scheer (189cm), who was the Spirit’s original import last season, will see the Flames put out one of the bigger frontcourts in the WNBL.
Rohanee Cox and Bendigo Braves star Lauren King both play taller than their roughly six-foot suggests, while Renae Camino has found a new home with Sydney after playing in the Spirit’s championship.
Alicia Poto is a respected point guard, so the Flames’ first five or six looks strong, but Sydney will need plenty from its bench to play finals.
Prediction – 8th
Townsville Fire – 4th (13-11), lost grand final
Can the arrival of the WNBL’s best player off-set the departures of several match-winners at the Fire?
Back-to-back league MVP Suzy Batkovic has headed north from Adelaide in the recruiting coup of the season.
It’s certainly excited captain Rachel Flanagan, who cancelled her retirement plans to have one more crack at a championship.
But the Fire will be without import Shanavia Dowdell and veteran Jess Foley, who has returned to Adelaide.
Snaring guard Steph Cumming from Dandenong is a big boost, while more will rest on the shoulders of import Kayla Standish this campaign.
Prediction – 3rd
West Coast Waves – 9th (4-20)
It’s looming as an even tougher season than last year for the West Coast Waves.
Against this company, West Coast looks desperately short of talent – with too much left to veteran captain Melissa Marsh and ex-Spirit guard Deanna Smith.
The Waves finished last of the nine WNBL clubs at the Spring Shield and only defeated a hastily-combined Victorian team.
Prediction – 9th