Bouncing back

November 1, 2018

Top flight women’s basketball on Tyneside went from the brink of extinction to the cusp of a brave new era within the space of two turbulent months this summer. Simon Rushworth reports on a team reborn

Pop your head into one of coach Chris Bunten’s intense training sessions and it’s as much a revealing lesson in human geography as it is a fascinating glimpse into the unique demands of elite women’s sport.

Swiss international Giulia Simioni has hot- footed it from her latest shift as a lifeguard, Pennsylvanian Kara Bonenberger arrives with a pile of books that could prove pivotal to the final mark in her Masters degree, and Australian Georgia Ohrdorf is asking for advice on where next to pitch her hammock. Hammocking, it appears, is a big thing Down Under.

Like their team-mates from New Zealand, Cyprus, Lithuania and beyond, the Newcastle Eagles trio bring a wealth of culture, passion and experience to a city they are proud to call their home. A city that came perilously close to losing its long association with top flight women’s basketball during a summer of potentially crippling uncertainty.

“I had no idea it was coming and the first thing I did was call Kara in America as I knew she wouldn’t have any clue what was happening,” explains Giulia, as she recalls the devastating moment she learned Northumbria University had chosen to end its celebrated national league programme.

A snap decision to shift the focus from performance sport to participation had sounded the death knell for Team Northumbria – the university’s hugely successful stable of internationally-recognised national league teams and home to Tyneside’s leading women’s basketball roster.

“I was back home in Switzerland when the news broke and of course it was a difficult time for everyone,” adds Giulia. “It was stressful but in the end we were the lucky ones. The Newcastle Eagles stepped in to save our team but that didn’t happen for the men’s basketball team or the volleyball teams. It’s such a shame.”

Northumbria’s decision proved as divisive as it was baffling. Lauded Paralympians Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and Stephen Miller lined up on opposing sides of an increasingly heated debate – the former defending the move in her role as the university’s Chancellor and the latter decrying it from the standpoint of a Northumbria alumnus with a room named in his honour at Sport Central. And for Georgia Ohrdorf, all set to sign for Chris Bunten’s Team Northumbria and start a degree course in Public Health, a dream move was fast becoming a nightmare.

“When Chris approached me with the offer to play basketball and study for a degree, it seemed too good to be true,” admits the Wollongong native and MSU Denver biology graduate.

“I’d been back home in Australia for a few months but I was getting itchy feet and I wanted to do some more exploring.

“I was all set to up sticks and fly to England when I heard that Northumbria University was ending its commitment to national league sport. I was on the other side of the world and I wanted to know where my future lay. Suddenly there was a big doubt about whether I’d actually make it to Newcastle after all, but I spoke to Chris and he assured me everything would work out fine.”

Chris Bunten, of course, couldn’t be sure. But what the England assistant coach did know was that Newcastle Eagles – home to British basketball’s most successful men’s team – would do everything in its power to bring Team Northumbria women’s basketball under its wing.

“Chris was always quietly confident that the Eagles would be able to do something to keep women’s basketball going in Newcastle,” concurs Giulia. “Whatever happened, I was coming back to finish my TESOL (teaching English to speakers of another language) course at Northumbria but it would have been tough to return without the prospect of WBBL basketball every weekend. I always hoped that there would be a happy ending.”

Weeks of intense negotiation concluded with a successful resolution and Team Northumbria was rebranded as Newcastle Eagles WBBL. An opening weekend victory against Edinburgh’s Caledonia Pride ensured a winning start to an exciting new era but Chris Bunten and his players accept the hard work starts now.

“We need to use this second chance to get out there and show people what a fantastic sport this is,” insists Ivy League graduate Kara Bonenberger. Following four years of unprecedented success at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, the 25-year-old forward is three years into her WBBL career and determined to highlight the potential of a sport rich in positives.

“Girls in the North East hear about netball and football and there are plenty of opportunities to play both,” she adds. “We need to prove that women’s basketball is an exciting alternative. England’s success in the Commonwealth Games earlier this year certainly helped and there was a lot of positive publicity around the national team winning the silver medal.

The fact that we’re now a big part of the Newcastle Eagles family should help us to make a start and make up ground.”

Georgia shares her team-mate’s mission to take women’s basketball to the masses. Already embedded in Newcastle Eagles’ award-winning Hoops 4 Health community programme, the versatile Aussie has been handed a golden opportunity to deliver a compelling message to schoolchildren across the North East and encourage more girls to embrace basketball.

“Hoops 4 Health is an inspirational project and I’d love to play a greater role in delivering sessions in the future,” adds Georgia. “Coming from a public health background, I’m fascinated by the effect it has had and can have in the future.

“It’s an incredible programme and I’m pleased that the WBBL team can play its part. Aside from the health benefits, it’s an opportunity to spread the word and let the kids know that women play basketball too – you see the way they look up to the men as heroes and it would be great if we could say the same about the women’s team in years to come.

“In the States, I didn’t come across anything like Hoops 4 Health but sport has always had the ability to influence lifestyle and encourage better health and well-being. It should influence women and girls as much as it does men and boys.”

The benefit of this season’s Newcastle Eagles rebrand is not lost on Giulia. The coach’s trusted captain and a popular leader within a closely- knit locker room is well aware that wearing the black and white kit, coupled with moving to the brand new Eagles Community Arena later this year, can have an overwhelmingly positive effect on a team in transition.

“I think as soon as we start playing out of the new venue, the profile of the team – and that of women’s basketball in the North East – is going to increase significantly,” adds the experienced senior international. “It already feels like we’re more of a family and we’ve got the weight and history of a great club behind us. We’re already getting so much more media coverage and attention simply because we are an Eagles team. Hopefully that will begin to translate into more fans.

“I think we all know that establishing Newcastle Eagles WBBL will be a process and good things won’t happen overnight. But I’m confident those good things will happen given the support of the local community and the commitment of a passionate group of players.”

Team Northumbria’s women’s basketball team was welcomed into the wider Eagles family as long ago as 2000, but the decision to rubber- stamp a blossoming relationship has only served to sharpen the focus of the club’s ambitious bosses. With a community-focused WBBL team acting as the pinnacle for elite performance, they believe a fresh opportunity has arisen to increase participation.

“I think we have the chance to put women’s basketball on the map in this region,” explains Paul Blake, owner and managing director of Newcastle Eagles. “But at a time when many other women’s sports are benefitting from significant investment, there is simply no money forthcoming to support the growth of women’s basketball at performance level in this country. As a result, we need to engender the support of the local business community and look at creating our own investment through sponsorship and ticket sales.

“There are obvious benefits in supporting the only professional women’s team on Tyneside and as an organisation we have a proven track record when it comes to delivering a sustainable and successful professional men’s team.

“We want to replicate that model with Newcastle Eagles WBBL and we want both the men’s and women’s teams to benefit from December’s move to the Eagles Community Arena.”

With Giulia, Kara and Georgia sharing a common desire to lead from the front, Paul is confident a new-look Newcastle Eagles WBBL can be the catalyst for increased participation
and the formation of a new female-only central venue league.

“There are already around 200 female players competing under the Newcastle Eagles Community Foundation name right now at various age groups,” he adds. “Our aim is to increase that number significantly and get back to a position where there is a girls-only central venue league. In addition, there are 14 girls who are part of the Newcastle Eagles Academy – with the WBBL team under our wing now, we feel that is another potential growth area.”

Newcastle Eagles WBBL
Newcastle Eagles WBBL host Durham Palatinates on December 8 at Sport Central.
For tickets, visit: www.newcastle-eagles.com

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