Popular centre Gabe Richards isn’t sure if she’s in career-best WNBL form, but she’s certainly been a key factor in the Bendigo Bank Spirit’s stunning start to the season.
The Spirit has put the competition on notice by winning its first four games on the road, three of those against last season’s top-three teams.
Richards has been instrumental in that, with her season’s statistics well up on her career average.
At 188cm, Richards is one of the smallest centres in the league, but what she lacks in height she makes up in effort and nous under the basket.
“I used to find it really daunting to have to play against players that were bigger than me, but I think I’ve just matured a bit and learnt to deal with it better,” Richards said.
And the 27-year-old seems to revel in the toughest jobs in the game, such as in her best match this season – a 24 point, 11 rebound game in the season-opener in Adelaide.
Opposed to reigning league MVP Suzy Batkovic, Richards held the Australian Opal to 17 points and 12 boards in the Spirit’s upset two-point win.
“When we play teams that have really good bigs we have to shut them down or we don’t really have a chance,” she said.
“Those girls are used to scoring big numbers, so you have to make them play defence as well.”
Encouraging signs from Canadian international Chelsea Aubry, plus the addition of Rachel Herrick has given Richards more of a chop-out under the basket this season.
While she’s still copped a battering, her troublesome left knee is causing her fewer issues.
Richards needed a cortisone injection to get through last season, which was followed by post-season surgery.
“The cartilage in my kneecap was pretty much shredded, so they just had to cut it out. I just have to play with what I’ve got left,” she said.
Richards managed the injury during the off-season as she dominated at goalshooter for Mount Pleasant and helped the Blues to back-to-back A-grade netball premierships in the Heathcote District Netball Association.
While she enjoyed refreshing mentally as much as physically with the winter away from basketball, Richards will consider a return to the Bendigo Lady Braves when new coach Jonathan Goodman comes calling.
“I could definitely look at doing it (playing for Mount Pleasant and the Lady Braves),” Richards said.
“Depending on what sort of team he puts together – and who’s part of it – I’d definitely consider it.
“The past few years when I haven’t played for the Lady Braves I’ve still investigated other options for other teams, but it’d feel wrong playing for someone else, I think.”
For now, Richards isn’t looking too far ahead, though, and is steering clear of any championship speculation.
“It might be a bit early to say that, but if we keep playing the way we have…no one would have picked us to be 4-0, including us I think, at this point of the season so that just goes to show that anything can happen,” she said.
After four games on the road, the Spirit makes its home debut this season against West Coast at Bendigo Stadium on Saturday night and fan-favourite Richards is hopeful of a big crowd.
“The amount of support we have already is huge. People just chatting about it, even at work and at the supermarket you get stopped and everyone seems to know that we’re doing quite well, which is good. So to have a home game is exciting.”