Back row: Marc Barfoot, Guy Nicholas, James Cole, Andy Rowlands, Richard Cutler, Craig Metcalf
Front row: Richard Bell, Ian Broadsmith, Martin Dowdall, Alex Byrne, Steve Chant, Dean Owen
"Mass exodus leaves Solent Stars in a weak state for new season". So ran the banner headline in the Eastleigh Weekly News prior to the commencement of the new basketball season.
The departure of Joe Morant (until mid-season, at least) and Steen Sorensen had been known. However, it came as a blow when Colombian star, Jimmy Palmer, announced that he was moving to the USA. Also going to the USA was Mark Jackson, for a three year scholarship. Jon Rumsey was out with injury and with Jason Colgan having also left the squad prior to the end of the preceding season, coach Mick Byrne was left with scarce resources.
The number of incoming players was less pronounced. Alex Byrne, son of the coach, was returning after a year in America and would join Martin Dowdall as a guard. Dean Owen, originally from the Solent area, but having worked in Plymouth and played for the Raiders was also signed as a forward. In defence, Solent would be relying on the ever-improving Craig Metcalf, but otherwise the team would rely on players who had been on the fringe of the squad in the previous season. In a pre-season, morale boosting win at Oxford Dons (78 - 64) those players had included Guy Nicholas, Andy Rowlands, Richard Bell and Steve Chant. Solent were also hoping to sign Richard Cutler and Marc Barfoot. Solent also gave a trial to Zimbabwean Clarence Mushtonga in the Oxford game, but he failed to impress. Solent demonstrated the fact that they had undertaken a summer fitness training programme by streaking into a 25 - 2 lead at Oxford. Dowdall bagged 24 first half points but then twisted his ankle and played no further part in the game.
Dowdall also missed the opening away league game against the fancied Ware Rebels. This meant that the Solent line-up was almost unrecognisable from that which had played since Solent's return to the full national scene two years previously. It meant in this game that the guard's role fell almost exclusively on the young shoulders of Alex Byrne who had to play throughout the game. Strong defensive play by Marc Barfoot and Guy Nicholas combined with Byrne linking up well with top-scorer, Craig Metcalf, meant that Solent surprised Ware to lead 37 - 34 at halftime. Ware then scored nine early points in the second half and scorched to a 55 - 66 lead. There then followed two ugly elbowing incidents which involved Ware's Dwayne Martin on both occasions. As a result of the first, Solent lost big-man Richard Cutler whilst the punishment for the second, on Alex Byrne, was only called as a technical foul much to Solent coach Mick Byrne's disgust. Despite this, Solent fought back to 64 - 72 before losing out to a further three point shot by Jon Burnell and going down finally 69 - 78.
The first visitors to Fleming Park in the season were Nottingham Cobras. As a newly promoted team they had won both their opening games. Once again, Alex Byrne took on the role of sole playmaker. Solent were on course for a first victory, building up an early 25 - 13 advantage, mainly thanks to the shooting of Richard Cutler who mixed three pointers with a spectacular dunk. By halftime, however, Nottingham had come back to 34 all. Solent held most of the advantage throughout the second half until the closing two minutes when Marc Barfoot gave them a two-point lead (61 - 59). But a poor defensive display from Solent allowed ex-England international Martin Ford to dominate the game and send Solent to a 65 - 69 defeat.
Away from league action for their next game, Solent travelled to second division Northampton for a tricky National Cup opening round game. Martin Dowdall returned to the team after his three week layoff and this eased the burden on Alex Byrne. Although Solent struggled at first against the young Northampton team and even trailed 37 - 38 at halftime, once they got their noses in front there could be only one winner. Steve Chant had a particularly impressive game in Solent's 66 - 56 win.
Since their return to the national scene, Solent had not beaten Brixton Topcats in the six meetings between the clubs. Strengthened by the return of Marc Barfoot, who had missed the Northampton match, Solent did well to match the fast running Brixton team and held a 33 - 32 lead towards the end of the half. A strong spurt from the home team took them 33 - 41 clear at halftime. Solent remained in touch until the last three minutes when Brixton opened a big lead to deny Solent a first league victory. Solent lost 64 - 80, with Byrne top scoring with 15 points.
The second round of the National Cup took Solent to Plymouth. Richard Cutler was on naval duty and he was sorely missed as Solent trailed by nineteen points at the half way stage. Coach Byrne commented, "We could not score to save our lives and Plymouth just blew us away with the speed of their break." A better second half performance saw Solent, inspired by Alex Byrne, close to 67 - 73. Just as it appeared that Solent might turn the game around a series of poor shot selections enabled Plymouth to build their lead again to win 69 - 82 (Byrne 27).
Mick Byrne, the Solent coach and England team manager, hit the headlines in Solent's next home league match against Slough. He was dismissed 24 seconds from the end of the match after a heated argument with the officials about the substitution of injured player Richard Cutler. A collision moments earlier had left Cutler hobbling with a knee injury but as the officials refused to stop play to attend to the player, Byrne's frustration became ever more apparent. Byrne had already been upset by previous technical fouls called on Martin Dowdall, Alex Byrne and Andy Rowlands. He became even more upset by the technical foul called on him for querying the decision not to stop the game and moments later was on his way to the changing room. None of the events, however, could hide the fact that Solent had lost another home game (58 - 69) - this time to a poorly regarded Slough outfit.
Solent's next trip was to league leaders Bury. Coach Mick Byrne was suspended and Martin Dowdall took the role of player/coach with team follower Jim Rumsey on the bench acting as lip-reader to Byrne who was forced to watch the game from a balcony of the Castle Leisure Centre. With five wins out of five, Bury expected to have things all their own way. However, a lively display from Dean Owen, Andy Rowlands and Alex Byrne denied them that. Despite losing Marc Barfoot (in the 14th minute) and Craig Metcalf with injuries, Solent closed to within five points of Bury in the final stages before going down 67 - 83.
A return to Fleming Park was next on the list, to play Plymouth Raiders in a league game. Surprisingly for a team without a league win over 400 supporters were present for the encounter. Coach Byrne had served his suspension and the team responded to that and the crowd size by putting on a long awaited-for display that put them nine points ahead for most of the first half. Plymouth came back into the game and overtime looked a distinct possibility with the scores at 60 all with less than two minutes remaining. The game could have gone either way but it was Martin Dowdall who decided it in Solent's favour with 13 points in the last five minutes to give Solent a 68 - 62 win (Dowdall 26).
The same venue and the same two teams constituted the next Solent fixture as the teams met in the National Trophy. Plymouth opened with an early 18-point salvo and after that Solent had a very uphill struggle. With Martin Dowdall tightly marked it was left to Alex Byrne to score the points. Although he totalled 27 in the game, there was not enough support from the other home scorers - other than Dowdall with 19 - and Solent exited the competition at the first hurdle (81 - 86).
An old favourite joined the Solent squad for their next game, at home to Stockton Mohawks. Drew Sewell had practised with the team for several weeks before committing himself to playing whenever work duties allowed. His shooting helped Solent establish a 35 - 22 halftime lead against a team just a few places above Solent in the league. With only seven players in their squad, Stockton looked down and out - having lost to third division Mid-Sussex in the Trophy just one week before. It was, therefore a complete mystery as to how Solent could let the match slip away in the second half to lose 79 - 88 (Sewell 24). Even without Richard Cutler, Solent should have won this match according to coach Byrne. "I can only apologise publicly to all those people who came along and bought tickets to watch this sort of display," he said.
Over 800 fans turned up at the Coventry Sports Centre for the home team's game against Solent Stars. Currently in contention to lead the league, Coventry Crusaders were surprised at the performance of Solent who only trailed by three points at halftime (32 - 35). However, Coventry then blew Solent apart with a fine second half display that began with denying Solent a point in the first five minutes. Indeed, Drew Sewell did not score a second half point and Martin Dowdall only hit two points. With no other visiting player picking up the scoring role, it was no surprise that Solent lost 54 - 80.
The next visitors to Fleming Park were Crystal Palace who were leading the league, just ahead of Coventry. Coach Byrne was hoping for a performance akin to the first half at Coventry. His team did not disappoint him. A newcomer to the squad was Roy Lewis who joined up with his previous partner Drew Sewell to give Solent more options. At first things went Solent's way as they patiently built up an 18 - 11 lead. Palace, coached by Alton Byrd, came back to level the game at halftime (37 - 37). Once again, Solent were slow out of the blocks at the start of the second half and Palace forged ahead. Solent rallied to come back to 62 - 64, but the league leaders demonstrated their superiority by racing away to a 77 - 86 win (Dowdall 19).
Solent Stars failed to ease their relegation worries when they travelled to Oldham Celtics and lost 75 - 83 (Byrne 22). American player Terraine Sears did most of the damage with 30 points and Solent only came back into the game at the end when Martin Dowdall did a good man-marking job on Sears, denying him the ball and reducing the points supply of the home team to a trickle. Without Drew Sewell and Roy Lewis (both working) Solent did not have the scoring power to stay in touch although the coach was encouraged by a return to form for Craig Metcalf and Marc Barfoot.
Next up for Solent was a match against Swindon Sonics who were bottom of the table. Drew Sewell enjoyed much freedom to shoot early on and capitalised on that. Once Swindon tried to close him down, Martin Dowdall took over the main scoring role. Swindon threatened briefly in the first half when they trailed by just two points, but at halftime they had fallen 52 - 36 in arrears. Solent were in no mood to let up and finally won 89 - 64 (Sewell 26, Dowdall 20).
A title-chasing team, Ware Rebels, were the next visitors to Solent. When Roy Lewis missed the first easy chance to score in the game in the first minute, Solent looked to be in trouble. Coach Byrne was forced to use both his timeouts in the first seven minutes, but could do little to stop Ware outscoring Solent 4 - 34 during one passage of play. That Solent finally mustered 52 points (Sewell 22) was due in part to Ware resting their main players for long periods. The final score of 52 - 105 was Solent's biggest defeat for five years - since the 54-point loss to Kingston. This marked Richard Cutler's last game for a while as he returned to Royal Navy duties.
If ever a team needed a boost, Solent were that team but their next match took them to Nottingham Cobras who were currently in fourth place in the league. Both Roy Lewis and Drew Sewell made the trip and their experience proved invaluable as Solent found themselves in a close-run finish after being level at halftime (33 - 33). In a match decided only in the final minutes, the unlikely match winner was Andy Rowlands. Normally a loyal bench man, Rowlands' opportunities were few and far between. Pressed into action when Marc Barfoot fouled out of the game, Rowlands swung the match for Solent with a couple of spectacular jump shots and then clinched it from the free throw line as he punished Nottingham's indiscipline. Solent won their first away game of the season in early February 70 - 66 (Sewell 20).
Drew Sewell and Roy Lewis were again the scoring heroes when Solent faced Brixton Topcats at Fleming Park. Apart from some anxious moments early on, Solent dictated the pattern and pace of the game - something that had eluded them in recent meetings between the teams. Solent accumulated a 43 - 31 halftime lead before a devastating second half which finished with Solent winning 104 - 81 (Sewell 34, Lewis 24) - exactly twice as many points as they had scored just two weeks ago on the same court.
Going into the final few matches of the season, Solent were in ninth position in the league with eight points. Trailing eight points behind Stockton, who were in eighth spot, a play-off place was unlikely. Survival was the main priority. Swindon, with only one win, looked doomed but Solent's points tally was matched by Plymouth and Slough were just two points behind. The game at Slough took on an important significance for Solent. Marc Barfoot was not fully fit for the Slough match but his height and bustle were needed. Solent led by seven points at the halfway stage, but suffered a blow when Drew Sewell fouled out with three minutes remaining, just as Slough Waterside went ahead for the first time. Despite a whole-hearted effort Solent could not regain the lead in the remaining time and lost 69 - 74.
Bury Lobos were wracked by injury problems and could only field six players for their visit to Solent. Their lack of numbers suggested that they would tire as the game went on and when Roy Lewis scored a three pointer to put Solent 65 - 58 ahead, the home crowd felt that just one more score might settle it. Instead they watched in horror as Bury gained renewed impetus when Alex Byrne twice gave the ball away with no cover behind him. Those errors allowed Bury to draw level in what had been an extremely tight contest throughout. Further defensive problems allowed Bury to regain a lead that was cancelled out by Martin Dowdall before he fouled out of the game. Bury again went two ahead before missing two important free throws. Marc Barfoot missed an easy lay-up before Guy Nicholas again levelled the score at 73 all. Only seconds remained as Drew Sewell gained an important defensive rebound before steaming up court as he looked to score a late winner. As Bury swiftly closed down the space before him, Sewell delivered the ball to Byrne, who had taken up a position on the right hand corner of the court. A reverse pass as the marker peeled away from Sewell left him free in his favourite wide shooting position. With only five seconds remaining, there was no room for error and Sewell ensured there was no error as he scored a typical three pointer that had the crowd leaping out of their seats. Solent won 76 - 73 with Sewell scoring 26 points.
Solent's recent hero was not available for the important trip to Plymouth. Also missing was Guy Nicholas although Solent were boosted by the return from America of Joe Morant, for his first game of the season. Unfortunately his lack of match practice showed as he ran up more fouls than points. Indeed this proved to be a very physical match, dominated by foul calls. Solent trailed 34 - 39 at halftime, but could not match the physical size and aggression of the home team and lost 69 - 88 (Lewis 22). With just five matches left, Solent were heading toward one of the two relegation places.
A second long trip beckoned in successive weeks when Solent travelled to Stockton Mohawks. Again, Drew Sewell was unavailable and this time he was joined by Marc Barfoot and Richard Game. The probable outcome seemed assured as Stockton went into a 0 - 8 lead. Solent pegged them back to 21 all before going behind again, only to rally for a second time and trail by three points at the interval. A trademark poor start to the second half - no score for five minutes - was not punished by Stockton who found the Solent defence hard to break. Alex Byrne threw in a couple of long three pointers whilst Roy Lewis' willingness to run through a defence proved profitable. With Joe Morant probing at guard and Craig Metcalf shrugging aside a hand injury, Solent began to accept their chances with more conviction. In a rough and tumble game, the sort that Solent rarely fancied, they found themselves 73 - 80 behind with five minutes remaining. More problems loomed when Lewis and then Andy Rowlands both fouled out. A couple of quick baskets by Guy Nicholas levelled the scores before Byrne put them in front from the free throw line. These points were to prove decisive since Stockton missed with their last attempt and Solent won 89 - 87.
A double-header weekend followed with the first match being at home to Coventry Crusaders. Even with the return of Drew Sewell, Solent were uncomfortable trying to match the Coventry team's running game and also they had little height resistance to offer, with Craig Metcalf - who had an indifferent game - being the only one of size in the team. A season's biggest crowd of over 500 spectators saw Solent keep level at halftime (42 - 42) thanks to some good shooting by Alex Byrne before Coventry's power drew them ahead to win 68 - 84 (Lewis 21).
The second game of the weekend took Solent to bottom club Swindon. Coach Byrne was upset when both Drew Sewell and Craig Metcalf withdrew from the squad at the last minute. With Marc Barfoot also having dropped out of the squad, Byrne's resources were sorely stretched. As luck would have it, he could again call on the services of Richard Cutler who had returned from Royal Navy duty. Cutler pulled down 15 rebounds in the game. Against a team that had only won once in the league, Solent made an indifferent start and were losing 38 - 41 at halftime. Fortunately for Solent, team captain Martin Dowdall recovered his shooting form that had deserted him of late. This allowed Solent to have plenty to spare as they won 89 - 75 (Lewis 25, Dowdall 24).
With Slough losing twice in a week, Solent were assured of a ninth or tenth place spot as they travelled to play Crystal Palace. As usual the Palace team proved too strong for Solent, being bigger and more mobile. Their fluency was interrupted when Michael Hosannah was disqualified for striking Joe Morant, but in the end they were comfortable winners (76 - 107). Crystal Palace were then crowned league champions.
Solent's final home game was against Oldham Celtics, a team that had finished fourth in the league. Once again the Solent support was evident as nearly 500 people came to Fleming Park for the match. In the early stages it looked as if their journey had been in vain as Solent appeared to be unable to muster any enthusiasm for the game or make any impact on their opponents. A ten-point burst near halftime enabled the visitors to go in nine points ahead. A tense finale to the season was barely conceivable when Oldham led by ten points with three minutes remaining. In less than a minute, however, the mood swung as Roy Lewis pounced twice and with Drew Sewell following, the lead was reduced to four (86 - 90). Solent had achieved this breakthrough by pressing Oldham in their own half, but there was always the risk that this would incur fouls. So it was, but in the process coach Byrne - who felt the officials were being too fussy - also was charged with a technical foul. All this helped Oldham move to a ten point lead which Sewell and Lewis made inroads into, but in the end Solent lost 94 - 100 to finish tenth in the league.
At the final league match, Drew Sewell received the Player of the Year trophy and Martin Dowdall collected the Players' Player of the Year award.
Solent points scorers for the season:Martin Dowdall 327, Alex Byrne 322, Drew Sewell 254, Roy Lewis 231, Guy Nicholas 166, Richard Cutler 135, Marc Barfoot 132, Andy Rowlands 84, Craig Metcalf 65, Dean Owen 35, Joe Morant 29, Richard Bell 27, Richard Game 11, Ian Broadsmith 11, Steve Chant 8