The Illawarra Hawks are the Under 14 girls national champions after an incredible, record-breaking run at the Australian titles in Melbourne.
The Illawarra side went undefeated throughout the tournament and beat arch rival, championship favourite and the previously undefeated Kilsyth in the final on Friday, 29 September.
The win marks a historic moment for the Illawarra Basketball Association.
While records are inconclusive, it is believed to be the first time in at least many decades the club has won a national club championship, let alone had two teams qualify, with the under 14 boys team making the titles as well.
The significance of the moment was not lost on the team’s assistant coach and Illawarra basketball icon Mat Campbell.
“From an association point of view, from the point of view of the program we are trying to build and girls’ spot in the region, it’s huge,” Campbell said.
“This is a real kick. But we knew we had a special team.
“This journey has been a couple of years in the making, from Under 12s to where they are now. They are just a phenomenal group of girls.”
Campbell’s daughter Sarah was a key member of the side and it’s fair to say Campbell was a proud father after the win.
“I’m so proud of Sarah,” he said.
“She has continued to work on her game and is focused on doing the hard things on the defensive end of the floor.
“She’s skinny, but the way she competes makes me very proud and that’s all you can ask for as a parent.”
The Hawks had an incredible championship, with the likes of Addison Bonham, Zara Suka and Grace Lane putting in huge performances across the tournament.
The final against Kilsyth provided an opportunity for revenge for the Hawks, with Kilsyth having won their match-up in the National Junior Classic earlier in the year.
The Hawks had an enormous and highly vocal support crew with them, with the chants of “Ill-a-war-ra” and “We love you coz you are from Wollongong” ringing through Melbourne’s Casey stadium, making it sound like a game at the infamous Snakepit.
The final was tightly contested, with the scores locked at 26 apiece at half time.
The Hawks went into the final term two points ahead, thanks to some tough defensive plays and an incredible over-the-head shot by Bonham.
It was then fitting Bonham would hit the winning basket in the dying seconds of the game to seal the win, 45-41.
“It’s been a hard week, but it’s been great,” Campbell said.
“All 10 girls hit the floor for every game bar that grand final game, and I really feel for the girls that didn’t get on court but they are as much a part of that team as anyone. We wouldn’t have been able to do this without them.
“These girls have turned up week in, week out.
“The combination of beating a team which has been undefeated all year – Kilsyth beat us by nearly 40 at the invitational tournament earlier in the year – and now we’ve reversed that on the biggest stage in Under 14 sport.”
Campbell said the team would be recognised at an upcoming Illawarra Hawks game, but hoped the city could do something to honour its newest national champions.
“National championships are hard to win and especially in this environment in Victoria, which is the mecca of basketball,” he said.
“I’m standing here at a facility in Casey, a suburb of Melbourne, which has 10 courts, and down the road at Dandenong they have 15 courts.
“We have one court at the Snakepit we could play this game at.
“This is why we have the national team with the [Illawarra] Hawks.
“We’d like to have a WNBL team to inspire these girls one day.
“This is where dreams are made and hopefully they’ll have somewhere they can continue to follow their dreams.”
The Illawarra Under 14 boys team, coached by another Illawarra basketball icon in Glen Saville, finished 22nd in the tournament. Saville’s son Riley was a part of the team.
The championships provided a unique link to history, with Saville and Campbell playing in the same championships together in 1989 for Bendigo.
“It was great having Sav in the stands today,” Campbell said.
It was recently announced Saville would be inducted into the NSW Basketball Hall of Fame at a special function in Wollongong in November.
Campbell is the Hawks’ general manager of basketball operations and has overseen a roster build that is expected to challenge for the NBL24 championship.