Paul Stimpson had an illustrious basketball career with both Crystal Palace and Kingston. When the latter club relocated to Glasgow in the close season, Stimpson's work commitments meant that he could not follow.
Whereas Mark Saiers knew of Paul Stimpson's abilities, having played with him at Crystal Palace, Saiers' other signing was more of a gamble. Saiers had tried for a couple of known Americans but they had preferred to go to the continent to play. It was ex-coach Jim Kelly who recommended Tyrone Canino.
This meant a starting line up of the above two players plus Phil Smith, Mark Scott and Drew Sewell. Strength from the bench would come from Nic Burns, David Brown, Paul Philp, Ian Finch and Paul Dorward. Local triallists included Mike Holbrow, from Southampton University, and Pete Heselgrave.
Both the latter players scored in Solent's pre-season victory over Worthing (117 - 106) although Solent were again mainly indebted to Phil Smith (34 points) and Drew Sewell (20). Neither of the two new signings had played - Canino because he still needed a work permit and Stimpson because he (with Nic Burns) was on tour in China with the England team. Solent had come back from an eight-point deficit at halftime to beat the team that had won the division below them in the previous season.
Pre-season arrangements were still far from satisfactory as Solent's two other home games both had to be played without the same three players who were still unavailable for the same reasons as before. Against Bracknell, Solent lost 85 - 112 with Phil Smith top-scoring on 23 points. Bracknell had establish a narrow 46 - 51 halftime lead but in the next six minutes this was increased to 50 - 79 and the game effectively over as a competition. Solent had to use guest players (including Roy Lewis and Deora Marsh) in the match and one of these, Steve Carter, scored 26 points and was immediately offered a chance to sign for Solent. The tall Hemel Hempstead player agreed - having fallen out with the Hemel coach some time previously.
The next pre-season game was against Brixton Topcats and was the occasion of the Eastleigh Mayor's Appeal Game. Phil Smith could only muster 19 points in this game, in which Solent provided a poor performance to lose to a team from a lower division (82 - 89). Coach Saiers described the team's performance as 'rubbish' and promised them several very hard training sessions. Just one week away was Solent's first away game to Livingston, although by then Solent would have the returning two England players and the American Tyrone Canino.
Meanwhile, the Carlsberg League itself had undergone many changes over the summer. Portsmouth, the reigning champions for the last two seasons, had folded. At one time they looked likely to transfer to Reading but when John Deacon relinquished his involvement with the sport because of health grounds, no sponsor could be found to replace him. Kingston moved to Glasgow to become Glasgow Rangers, Manchester United became Manchester Eagles and Bolton and Bury renamed themselves Olympic City Giants. More worryingly for the sport at the top level, Calderdale had also folded, Birmingham had gone to Division One as a cheaper option and Worthing had rejected the promotion to the Carlsberg League, also on financial grounds. The League now consisted of just twelve teams.
Livingston, with recent signing Alan Cunningham, were considered as favourites for the upcoming season's league title. It was to be a baptism of fire for the new-look Solent. At halftime they trailed 44 - 52 but their troubles had begun to pile up with the new, 24 year old American Tyrone Canino, already having fallen foul of the referees four times. In the second half, Livingston extended their lead to 20 points. By then Canino had been brought back into the game and fouled out within a minute. He was joined by Phil Smith soon after. However, Solent did not capitulate and a spirited rally led by Paul Stimpson and Drew Sewell saw them reduce the deficit by full time to finish 91 - 104 losers. This was a defeat but nonetheless a promising start for Solent.
A visit to another strongly fancied team, Bracknell, followed four days later for a mid-week Nat West Trophy game. This competition was to be played in two pools of six teams with the top two progressing to the semi-finals, followed by a TV coverage final and a prize of £20,000. The other teams in Solent's group were Crystal Palace, Hemel, Derby and Leicester. Solent's start in this competition was inauspicious as they lost to Bracknell (103 - 117) and Tyrone Canino suffered a wrist injury that would keep him out of the next game.
Manchester were Solent's next visitors to Fleming Park for a league game at 8pm on a Saturday evening - Solent's new regular home night. Solent trailed in the match throughout, despite a marvellous shooting display by Phil Smith (39 points). With Canino missing, Solent were outmuscled on the boards by Manchester's David Gardener and Colin Irish, while Will Brown joined those two in scoring in double figures. A quarter of Manchester's first half points came from the free throw line as Solent fought to stay with the visitors' scoring rate. After sitting out part of the second half because he was on four fouls, Smith re-entered the game with five minutes remaining. He tore into the Manchester defence and scored twice being fouled on each occasion and adding two more points from the free throw line. A couple of quick subsequent baskets from young new signing Russ Taylor (ex-Portsmouth) saw Solent cut the gap to one point (81 - 82). Mark Scott then missed two fairly simple shots to deny Solent going into the lead and Manchester responded through Colin Irish scoring two more points. This advantage was nullified by Smith who dribbled the length of the court, pivoted away from his marker and scored a three pointer to level the score at 84 all. David Brown had Solent's next shot which hit the rim but did not drop in the basket. Will Brown then scored a three pointer A free throw and another Manchester basket were their final points and the last scoring shot of the game was another three pointer from David Brown. The game was lost 87 - 90.
Mark Saiers then took the team to play against an unbeaten Birmingham team for a friendly match. Solent's higher division status shone through as they defeated the Division One outfit from Birmingham 93 - 76. Top scoring for Solent, as usual, was Phil Smith with 29 points followed by Russ Taylor with 17.
Solent's opponents for the first round of the National Cup were old rivals Bracknell who had won the five previous encounters between the teams. The game, played at Bracknell, started well enough for Solent who were only two points adrift after twelve minutes when Phil Smith suffered a nasty gash above his eye - after colliding with a courtside table - which required immediate hospital treatment. Although Solent stayed in the game - with Paul Stimpson playing a leading part - until five minutes from the end, they could not overcome Smith's loss. The last five minutes were disastrous for Solent who only scored two points as Bracknell rattled in fifteen in the same time. This loss (68 - 82) meant that for the first time in six seasons Solent would not be reaching at least the quarter-final of the National Cup. Solent felt hard done by with the refereeing decisions during the crucial last five minutes and coach Mark Saiers was particularly upset and conveyed his feelings at length to the match commissioner.
Russ Taylor (left) with Stars Director Jim Rumsey
It was another dry spell of scoring - only six points in a second half period of six minutes - that cost Solent their next home game against Leicester. This seventh consecutive league and cup defeat was always on the cards as Solent were playing without Phil Smith, who was still injured. Another missing player was Solent's second American, Tyrone Canino, who had carried out his threat to leave the club and return to America. Canino had suffered a wrist injury (against Bracknell in the Nat West Trophy game) but he was also unsettled by a bitter dispute over pay that Canino described as an 'experience unlikely to be forgotten'. Even more trouble was heaped on luckless coach Mark Saiers prior to the game when he was ordered by the club directors not to play Nic Burns. The directors felt that Burns was not showing enough commitment to the club and wished to discuss his future at a meeting to follow shortly. In the event it was a credit to the remaining players that they put up a strong performance. Drew Sewell was named man-of-the-match for his 34 points whilst Paul Stimpson (20) gave inspirational leadership. After getting within two points of the visitors (75 - 77) Solent then hit the thin patch of scoring for the next six minutes. Despite a late rally, Solent eventually lost 94 - 100 in this Nat West Trophy game.
A feeble second half performance from Solent allowed them to consolidate their position at the foot of the table after a crushing home defeat by Bracknell (86 - 113). Meeting the Berkshire team for the third time in the season, Solent collapsed to their worst defeat of the three as their defensive resistance crumbled without trace. Without Canino and Burns, Solent were struggling on the boards and only managed two defensive rebounds in the whole of the second half. To add to their woe, Solent also ran into foul trouble - including a technical on Mark Saiers - and after a brief rally at the start of the second half capitulated for yet another defeat.
Not having won at Sunderland for three seasons, a first half deficit of nine points meant that Solent had a mountain to climb in the second half. Phil Smith, back after injury, again provided most of Solent's points as they fought their way back into the game to pull up to just two points behind the home team. They were unable to press home any advantage however and Sunderland - aided by several visits to the free throw line - held on to inflict yet another defeat on Solent (86 - 90).
Finally on Saturday, October 29th Solent won a competitive league match - but it was a game to be remembered for all the wrong reasons. The visitors were Crystal Palace, another team struggling with league performance. In a scrappy, ill-tempered game Solent were unable to impose themselves to gain a clear lead in this match that both teams were desperate to win. It was this desperation that caused this game to explode into acrimony in the closing stages when both Drew Sewell and Roger Lloyd (Crystal Palace) were ejected from the game for fighting. As is customary with these kinds of things, the initial trouble looked innocuous enough as Phil Smith together with Lloyd scrambled around the floor in pursuit of a loose ball. When they rose to their feet, however, feelings were obviously stretched and Lloyd appeared to throw a punch at Smith. Angered by this, Sewell bundled Lloyd into the stands, where a fight instantly broke out involving all the players on court - plus those who came off the team benches - rushing to join in. It was a baptism of fire for Solent Junior, 17 year old Jon Rumsey, who had just come onto the court for the first time in a senior game when the incident happened! He was quickly rescued from the fray by coach Mark Saiers who deemed it advisable to put him back on the bench for the final few minutes. Drew Sewell (35 points) and Phil Smith (32) were Solent's main scorers in their 97 - 86 win.
This first victory marked the end of the spell of Mark Saiers as Solent's coach. A combination of factors culminated in Solent appointing Phil Smith to the role of player/coach. The writing had been on the wall when Saiers' apparent absence of control over team matters was demonstrated when the directors effectively 'sacked' one of his players - Nic Burns - several weeks earlier. Results - only one win - had also gone against Saiers, and when the sponsors - A&B Homes - refused to increase their already generous sponsorship, it was decided to axe Saiers. Steve Fitzsimons was to continue in his role as Assistant Coach, while a 'surprised' Phil Smith took on the player/coach role. Ironically, Smith's first action was to re-instate Nic Burns!
Two Nat West Trophy games were Smith's initial matches in charge. A visit to Leicester did not finish in the fairy-tale win required in these circumstances. Although Phil Smith top-scored with 34 points he could not prevent Solent losing 86 - 96. Phil Smith was also top scorer in the next game, home to Derby in the Nat West Trophy. This game provided Smith with his first victory whilst in charge of the Solent team. With only four points separating the teams at the start of the last minute, it was several visits to the free throw line that enabled Solent to win - including four successive points from Smith himself (100 - 90).
A third Nat West Trophy victory followed for Solent when they visited Crystal Palace in the following week. Despite a poor first half performance, Solent managed to keep within two points of Crystal Palace at halftime. In the second half, Solent's shooting and rebounding improved as they began to take charge. Phil Smith was top scorer with only 14 points. He shared that honour with Mark Scott, who rebounded well throughout. Steve Carter (12) and Nic Burns (10) were the other players to reach double figures in Solent's 80 - 71 win.
Having won three of their previous four games, Solent then had to travel to play Glasgow Rangers, who were league leaders and unbeaten. In truth, that unbeaten record was never in danger from a team still looking for their first league win. It was the seventh time in seventeen starts that Solent's brittle defence conceded over 100 points as Glasgow's Alan Cunningham, Butch Hays and Dan Davis piled on the points. The final score of 83 - 111 could have been much worse had coach Kevin Cadle not chosen to rest his starting five for long periods.
Finally, at the end of November, Solent's occupation of the bottom place in the Carlsberg League came to an end when they recorded their first league win of the campaign over Olympic City Giants, 112 - 104. This was the first win at Fleming Park in the league since January. The team had not been able to train altogether in the week of the game because of injuries and absence (Drew Sewell had been with the England team). None of this seemed to matter with the start Solent made against the Olympic City (formerly Bolton and Bury) team, as they scored the first six points of the game. By halftime, however, the scores were level. Thereafter it was Solent - with Paul Stimpson and Mark Scott outstanding - who ran the game, although never quite being able to establish a comfortable lead. In fact it was indiscipline on behalf of the visiting team in the last few minutes that allowed Solent to visit the free throw line for some easy points that finally made the difference.
Having moved off the bottom of the league for the first time, the next game was a home match against fellow strugglers, Sunderland. The newfound confidence shone through in the first half and continued until midway through the second. By then Solent had established a 13-point lead. Then, inexplicably, they fell apart and allowed Sunderland to take over - including the lead in the match. Solent rallied and two free throws by Phil Smith gave them a one-point lead with 36 seconds left. Solent then took a timeout and after that used as many seconds as they could in setting up Russ Taylor for an easy shot. He missed and Russ Saunders got the ball and was quickly fouled by Smith, giving the Sunderland player - under the rules at the time - one free shot, followed by another if successful with the first. Saunders missed his shot, but 7' 1" Nic Burns was beaten to the rebound by Jim Smith (5' 10") who popped the winning basket in from close range. Solent protested that Burns was fouled by Smith but the basket stood and Solent lost a game (95 - 96) that they should have won.
Another home match followed - this time the visitors were Crystal Palace. At halftime Solent had established a 49 - 40 lead. In the second half they built on this lead and at one stage were twenty points ahead. The meagre home crowd were then treated to the usual Solent antics as they once again failed to consolidate on their superiority and Palace came back to within nine points (90 - 81) with three minutes remaining. Baskets from Paul Philp and Drew Sewell served to open a more comfortable gap for Solent, who eventually won 104 - 89.
Solent then sustained their recent improvement in terms of results when they visited Derby in their next pool match of the Nat West Trophy. Comfortably ahead by fifteen points in the first half, Solent allowed their command of events to be too easily broken as Derby came from behind to almost snatch the lead at the half, but Solent still led by one point (45 - 44). The damage had been done by Derby's Mike Henderson. Just two weeks before he had tried out for Solent but no progress had been made because of the fee involved and the fact that Henderson had recently had knee surgery. A scrappy second half ensued, but Solent were good enough on the night to withstand Derby's grandstand finish and won 90 - 87 to progress to the quarter-final stage of the competition - despite the outcomes of the remaining three games.
Only three matches remained in the Nat West Trophy pool, and this match was the last match of the calendar year at Fleming Park. The opponents were Solent's nemesis, Bracknell. Despite only scoring one point in the final three minutes of the game, Solent somehow resisted the furious Bracknell onslaught to emerge with their sixth win from nine games in which Phil Smith had been player/coach. As usual, Smith led by example and the 38 points he scored ensured Solent their first win in five attempts over Bracknell in the season. His most useful contribution was delivered between the 30th and 34th minute when he notched twelve quick points that erased a Bracknell lead of 79 - 83 and instead gave Solent a 93 - 85 advantage. This was the biggest gap of the match and more scoring over the next three minutes gave Solent high hopes of victory, but again they stuttered. With 105 seconds left Paul Stimpson took a free throw and that one point was Solent's last scoring effort and they were leading by just one point! Having defended well for the last stages Solent thought they had won during a scramble under their basket when the buzzer went - only to find it was a jump ball with one second remaining. A timeout was called, mainly to ascertain if a player could score from a tip in at a jump ball. In fact, it nearly happened as Dale Roberts did tip the ball against the Solent rim, but it did not go in and Solent had won 102 - 101.
The penultimate Nat West Trophy pool game took place on Friday, January 6th at Fleming Park against Hemel and Watford. It was also Phil Smith's 28th birthday. However it did not look to be too happy an occasion when, after ten minutes, Solent were trailing 13 - 32. Despite Hemel's superiority, coach David Titmuss berated the referees for failing to give foul calls against Smith. Eventually, a technical foul was given against Titmuss and this proved to be the start of a remarkable comeback by Solent. After Smith scored the subsequent free throws, he went on to add 13 more points in the final five minutes of the half to help Solent to a halftime lead (52 - 51). The visitors had only scored six points in the final five minutes of the first half, and Solent were able to keep them at bay also as they started the second half. Once a clear lead was established, Hemel looked a beaten side. With Smith scoring 35 points and Drew Sewell 24, Solent were easy winners (111 - 94) - their biggest win of the season.
A few days later, the two teams met again at Hemel. In a match that had no bearing on the final positions, Hemel exacted revenge for the previous defeat (97 - 107). Solent's home and away opponents in the Nat West Trophy quarter-final would be Leicester.
Before those games, there was still league action to consider. Solent, with only two wins to their credit, needed to finish at least in eighth spot - in a league of only eleven teams - to qualify for the play-offs. The next visitors were Livingston who had recently won the World Club Invitation Tournament at Crystal Palace. Solent soon found themselves trailing, 13 - 29, by the fifth minute. However an inspired period of play saw them come back to trail by just four points (37 - 41) just two minutes before the interval. For the next two minutes and the five minutes after the break, Livingston demonstrated why they were favourites for the league title as they outscored Solent 9 - 26. Solent finally lost by 23 points, 98 - 121.
As the transfer deadline approached, Phil Smith had his request to sign Deora Marsh turned down by the directors. They were of the view that the money could be saved to strengthen the team for the following season. A local player, Jason Colgan, was added to the squad. He had played for Portsmouth in the previous season's Championship winning team.
Injuries played a big part in Solent's next defeat, away to Manchester. Already missing big man Russ Taylor, Solent also lost the services of player/coach Phil Smith halfway through the second half with a knee injury. The subsequent 84 - 105 loss meant that at the halfway stage of the league programme Solent had only won two games and were in eighth position in the league, with no further chance to strengthen their squad.
The injury list had grown by the time of the next home game against Hemel and Watford. Phil Smith (knee ligament), Russ Taylor (ankle), Steve Carter (ankle) and David Brown (illness) had not been able to train in the week and were all missing from the squad for the game. It was not surprising, therefore, that Solent fell behind at the start to be 12 - 25 in arrears after the first ten minutes. But just seconds before the halftime break, they had pulled back to a deficit of just two points (42 - 44) when slipshod play allowed Hemel to add five more points to their first half total. Hemel were able to control most of the second half. The closest Solent came was, when trailing by seven points and with four minutes to go, Paul Stimpson burst through and found himself too far under the basket to score. His shot hit the rim and Mark Scott, following up, should have tipped the ball in as he was unopposed, but somehow he missed. Thereafter Solent could make no further inroads and lost 88 - 98.
It was back to cup action for the next game, the quarter-final of the Nat West Trophy against Leicester. In the dour first leg, at Fleming Park, Solent missed the influence of Phil Smith and despite holding a lead at halftime (40 - 39) finally had to travel to Leicester carrying a seven point deficit as they lost 79 - 86. Smith had made a brave attempt to play, heavily strapped, but he was almost immobile. Only Paul Stimpson (19) could score with any regularity and once Smith had finally left the game through injury with seven minutes remaining, Solent lost the initiative.
Player/coach Phil Smith was not even present to see the next game, which resulted in Solent's biggest defeat of the season. Although still ruled out by injury, Smith had been expected to take control of the team in their league match at Bracknell. But in the next in the series of controversial events to plague the Solent club, Smith was left behind after failing to arrive for the scheduled departure of the team bus. Smith then refused to make his own way to the game as the strained relationship between him and the directors - fuelled by the refusal to sign Deora Marsh - widened still further. The season had already seen previous coach Mark Saiers sacked, commercial manager Adrian Shand had resigned and player Tyrone Canino had left the club. Steve Fitzsimons took charge of the team for the game, but admitted that for the first time the team had seemed to sense that they had no chance of victory even before the game began. The only bright spots for him had been the return of Russ Taylor and the six minutes court time given to promising Solent Junior, Jon Rumsey. Both however were on the receiving end of a 77 - 108 defeat.
Solent's interest in the Nat West Trophy competition ended as a result of a 25-point defeat at Leicester (74 - 99). Already with a seven-point deficit from the home tie, it was probably unrealistic to expect Solent's injury-plagued team to overcome the home team. Despite a solid team performance, Solent could not match the scoring rate of Leicester, who then progressed to the semi-final.
The two teams met again, just a few days later, when Leicester travelled south. For the second time in two weeks, Solent were to suffer their heaviest defeat of the season. This was their eighth successive defeat and their eleventh defeat in 13 matches. More alarmingly, the margins of the defeats were getting larger. In this game, still missing Phil Smith, Solent only scored from 35% of their shots. This also explained the low final points total of Solent - a mere 66 points. After leading 37 - 60 at the interval, Leicester had little difficulty in maintaining their stranglehold on the game to eventually win 66 - 100.
A friendly game was arranged against Worthing at Fleming Park on the following Wednesday, as Solent tried to improve their team play. The match was notable for the lack of appointed referees, the organisers having overlooked the fact that it was not an 'official' fixture. In the event a hasty telephone call to national league referee, Noel Malone, brought forth one official. The other official pressed into service was local referee, and Solent Stars director, Jim Rumsey. Drew Sewell notched 30 points as Solent won 117 - 104 against the team chasing promotion in Division One.
This exercise seemed to prove beneficial in Solent's next game, away to Hemel. Solent put on one of their best performances of the season - still without Phil Smith - but could not do enough to win. The close result (96 - 102) was a great improvement on the recent run of results and may have been closer still had Solent not felt hard done by the number of fouls called against them. However, with the other two teams winning their matches on the same night Solent Stars dropped to the bottom of the league.
Solent restored some pride when they played their next match, away to Derby. Although not fully recovered from his ligament problems, Phil Smith still proved to be the best player on court as he hammered in 35 points to lift Solent to their biggest win of the season (106 - 85).
When you are near the bottom of the league, the last team you want to play next is a team close to winning the league championship. Yet this was Solent Stars' fate as they took on Glasgow Rangers at Fleming Park. Glasgow with Alan Cunningham and Butch Hays in their squad were in no mood to grant favours as coach Kevin Cadle demanded a win from his team. With still seven minutes of the first half remaining Glasgow had forged an incredible 31 - 52 lead and Solent looked to be in for a complete drubbing. Rangers led by 34 points with five minutes to play when Cadle decided to rest Cunningham and Hays. Solent outscored the visitors 18 - 7 in that period to leave the second half scores level. The 95 - 118 defeat could have been worse but for Smith (29) and Sewell's (27) scoring.
Solent then paid a visit to Manchester to play Olympic City, a team that they had beaten in previous encounters. Another win still looked to be possible when Solent, who only had seven players for this mid-week match, led 46 - 44 at halftime. However, a poor last five minutes, when they only scored nine points, allowed Olympic City to run out winners 89 - 101. The stage was set for Solent to try to qualify for the play-offs as this was Olympic City's last match. Solent needed to beat Crystal Palace, away, and then fourth place Leicester who would be Solent's last visitors in the season.
The squad raised its game for the visit to Crystal Palace to win by the biggest margin of the season (99 - 67). This was Solent's first away win in a league match for over a year. At halftime they enjoyed a 49 - 28 advantage. Without too much difficulty they widened the gap at the beginning of the second half and it says all for their superiority that Phil Smith could take himself off for the last seven minutes of the game.
And so to the final home league game. Solent, with only four wins to their credit, had to beat fourth place Leicester to gain eighth spot in the league. But it was Leicester who set the pace, leading throughout the match with Solent only narrowing the lead to a couple of points on one occasion. Leicester led by 17 points in the second half before Solent reduced it to three points with more than seven minutes to play. However, Leicester were able to pull away again and Solent lost 88 - 98.
The Solent Player of the Year trophy went to Drew Sewell.Assistant coach, Steve Fitzsimons, said, "Playing with one American has not helped us. Players like Mark Scott, Nic Burns and Paul Philp have had to play much longer periods than would otherwise have been the case." Solent's season ended without any Championship Play-Off matches.