“Competition, tough games and competitive basketball – for sure that’s the Country Basketball League…”
When the Wallan men’s team made history with its first Country Basketball League (CBL) title in the 2019/20 season, its appetite for further success was something to be feared by associations.
One pandemic and delayed CBL season later, the Panthers’ quest to prove themselves in the North East Conference remains the priority.
Still reeling from the impacts of 2020, our basketball community returned to some normality on the weekend with the start of a new CBL season.
For many, including Wallan Basketball Association president Gary O’Brien, Saturday 9 January 2021 was a date long overdue, but greatly anticipated.
“It was emotional,” said O’Brien. “It wasn’t just a hard 12 months not having basketball, it was a hard 12 months surviving.
“We lost all of our competition; we lost all our revenue.
“Our main priority was just to keep the club afloat and find ways to stay connected within our community,
“There’s been a lot of hard work to actually get to this point, so to get people back on court playing the game we love is fantastic.”
Involved with the Wallan Panthers for 17 years, 10 of those as president, and an avid supporter of his local community, O’Brien’s connection to CBL goes deeper than just his love of basketball as a sport.
For him, it signifies all the best qualities of a country town and its people.
“The thing about CBL that makes it unique, and that we have to protect, is that it’s town versus town,” explained O’Brien. “Country ball is a bit more physical; it has a different feel to it.
“It’s both a great competition as a standalone pinnacle of senior basketball in the country areas, but also as a pathway to get access to the Big V season.
“It sits in the perfect time of year to prepare themselves for a potential Big V season, so there’s double the benefit.”
In a season like no other, the 2021 CBL season sees a lightning round format, condensed to seven weeks with 130 games across seven regional conferences.
The condensed season serves to allow the safe return of basketball for players, referees, venues and volunteers in line with Basketball Victoria’s messaging of easing back into play.
O’Brien said while another title for Wallan is on his agenda, the best thing about the 2021 CBL season is just to have the community spirit ignited within the stadium again.
“We’re coming off a championship, so any opportunity to get on the court and defend it we’re going to take,” said O’Brien. “It’s our first senior title we’ve had, so we don’t know what’s going to happen in 2021,
“Either way we know it’s going to be an exciting and gritty season and we have every intent to get another championship banner on our wall.”
The Wallan Men’s team appointed Leo Viitala, an All Star 5 recipient and key athlete, to take over the reigns as head coach this season.
While his experience and dynamic knowledge of the game is an asset for Viitala, it’s his country roots that he feels will allow him to thrive as a CBL coach.
“I think it’s the camaraderie of a country club that keeps these guys playing week in, week out and brings everyone back,” said Viitala. “It’s all about that country vibe.
“Being a country kid, going through the country ranks, I think going to country towns and playing in front of country crowds is quite thrilling.”
Viitala said he has high standards for his team going into the 2021 season, but knows they have the hunger to win another title after being away from the game for so long.
“Obviously it was a tough year last year with COVID-19,” he explained. “Early wins will be crucial this season and we’ll have to adjust to get off on the right foot and compete for ourselves.
“Having empty stadiums is a very unusual thing, so to have people come back and fill the stands is very exciting and demonstrates what CBL is all about; people.”
Wallan hosts Benalla in a double-header at home from 6pm on Saturday.