Solent Stars 1995/96 Season

Back row: Mick Byrne, Drew Sewell, Andy Rowlands, Ron Whitehead, Richard Game, Chris Sheldrick, Roy Lewis, Steve Fitzsimons
Front row: David Martin, Joe Morant, Ian Broadsmith, Alex Byrne

"Solent Stars usher in a new era for the club" - so ran the headline in the Eastleigh Weekly News of September 14th, 1995. The main change referred to was that Mick Byrne, coach for the past six seasons, had been given a free hand to run the club through his cash injection that gave him a three year franchise from the current owners. Apart from recruiting and coaching the players, Byrne would also be responsible for all club administration and development of new marketing and sponsorship initiatives.

Realising the burden of his responsibilities, Byrne approached Steve Fitzsimons to ask for his assistance in the coaching role with specialist team training sessions. On the playing front, the team continued much as before, with the exception of Drew Sewell who had signed for Premier League Birmingham Bullets. Roy Lewis, Martin Dowdall and Joe Morant would be the core of the squad whilst Craig Metcalf, Jamie Donaldson, Guy Nicholas, Andy Rowlands, ex-Junior David Martin and Jon Rumsey (if fit) were all offered places. Richard Cutler also would be available, Navy commitments allowing. Conscious that relegation had been a major issue in the last three seasons, Byrne was anxious to strengthen the side and began negotiations with American basketball agents to find a suitable player.

The league for the forthcoming season included promoted clubs Cardiff and Mid-Sussex who replaced Slough and Swindon in the twelve team division. The National Cup first round draw had given Solent a home tie against Croydon.

Solent's first game was an away trip to Oldham Celtics, one of the lesser teams in the league. Solent were hampered by a back injury to Martin Dowdall, who did not make the trip. Reduced to just a hard core of four senior players, Solent were reliant on a good team performance from all the players. Joe Morant, Roy Lewis and Alex Byrne helped Solent build up an early lead with good support from Andy Rowlands and David Martin. That lead had disappeared at halftime and with five minutes remaining Solent trailed 53 - 60. The visitors then decided to chance everything on a press - a risk because of leaving exposure at the back, especially with a young and tiring squad. On this occasion, though, it brought instant reward as Solent harried Oldham into a succession of errors from which Lewis and Byrne scored several points. Richard Bell levelled the scores and then drew the final foul that enabled them to go ahead and win the game 70 - 67 (Lewis 28, Byrne 20).

The first home game of the season, against Cardiff, was to prove a disappointment for the home fans. With no new players in the Solent squad and memories of many recent home defeats, it came as no surprise that Solent trailed 36 - 43 at halftime in a lacklustre performance. Any hopes of a revival were dashed by an eight minute spell when Solent failed to score at all and by the time Roy Lewis did put the next points away, Solent were losing by 24 points. Chris Harper was Cardiff's inspiration, scoring 22 points and having a commanding presence on court. Solent had no reply and lost 64 - 88 (Lewis 18).

Solent's next visitors, Brixton, had also lost to Cardiff in the opening game of the season. Coach Byrne had been in Turkey in the week in his role as England team manager and it had been left to Steve Fitzsimons to take the training sessions. Solent looked a more compact outfit at the start of the game and contested every loose ball and rebound throughout. It was after just such a contest that the game's most unsavoury incident took place midway through the second half. The scoring had been close throughout when a loose ball scramble ended with Junior Williams of Brixton being called for a pushing foul on Joe Morant. Unexpectedly Williams then head-butted Morant to leave him with an ugly facial gash. Williams was disqualified and the game continued with the teams still trading baskets. When Roy Lewis levelled the scores at 72 all with two minutes remaining, the game could have gone either way. Instead, Eddie Owusu the visiting guard sank two long three pointers to dash Solent's hopes and send them to a 75 - 80 defeat.

Steve Fitzsimons (left) and Mick Byrne

A visit from Croydon in the National Cup first round followed and it provided yet more controversial incidents. In one case this involved the referee, David Taylor. With Solent leading by three points almost at the final buzzer, a Croydon player launched a desperate three point attempt from the sideline. Although the shot missed, Taylor called a foul on Roy Lewis which gave the visitors three free throws, which they gratefully scored to take the game into overtime. "Referees should not decide games with awful calls like that," said coach Byrne who was already upset by a series of calls made during the game. He was particularly upset when the officials failed to notice or take any action on an elbowing incident deep into overtime that put Guy Nicholas in hospital with a suspected fractured cheekbone. Solent lost the game 82 - 85, but would look back to a first half where they were generally outplayed in all departments.

Steve Fitzsimons was in charge of the squad for the next away league match, a visit to Plymouth Raiders. He was hampered in his team selection through the absence of Roy Lewis, Guy Nicholas and Richard Bell. Ben Peacock and Steve Johns joined the team for the first time. The squad was not strong enough and this was demonstrated when, apart from a few free throw attempts, Solent went ten minutes without scoring in the first half to trail 20 - 51 at halftime. Steve Johns showed his inexperience by picking up five fouls in almost as many minutes and limiting the coach's options even more. However, a gutsy second half performance saw Solent recover some of their pride although the margin of defeat (70 - 104) was a matter for concern.

More newcomers joined the Solent ranks for their trip to Northampton - from the second division - in a National Trophy game. Chris Sheldrick (from the Solent Junior squad) and Chris Mills were the additions. In a match strewn with fouls, Solent moved into an early 13-point lead that they defended throughout most of the first half. Six points ahead at halftime, Solent then lost Martin Dowdall on foul trouble six minutes into the second half. When Joe Morant followed three minutes later, Solent suddenly looked in trouble. Northampton gained confidence and came back to trail by just two points (65 - 63) before a series of fouls by them allowed Solent breathing space and a final 71 - 63 win. Andy Rowlands with 16 points had been the pick of the Solent team along with an impressive performance from Alex Byrne.

Crystal Palace had been unable to gain acceptance to the Premier League in the close season and since had won league matches by 71, 54 and 44 points. Solent were their next opponents. Steve Fitzsimons was again in charge of the team for this game at Fleming Park which marked the return of Guy Nicholas from injury. Fitzsimons' game plan was to slow down the Palace attacks by a series of defensive strategies. This worked well until the last quarter of the game when Crystal Palace took advantage of the tiring Solent team to run in 30 plus points to leave Solent 62 - 99 behind at the end (Dowdall 25).

A visit to Coventry followed and but for a match winning performance by American Matthew Donaldson, who scored 49 points, Solent could have caused a surprise. Solent were only six points behind with as many minutes to go when Donaldson took advantage of the tiring visitors to launch a final scoring salvo. This followed shortly after Guy Nicholas, who had played probably his best game for Solent, had to leave the court for attention for yet another head injury. No Roy Lewis, who would not play without payment, meant that Solent were short in the scoring department with only Alex Byrne able to reach the 20 point mark. Solent lost 71 - 90.

Drew Sewell

Coach Byrne arranged a series of friendly matches to try out some newcomers. One player who impressed was Arnie Hoffman, a 6' 6" engineering student from Germany. Unfortunately his international clearance papers did not come through in time to allow him to play in the next home game against Bury.

Nine months earlier Bury had provided Solent with their last home win. Coach Steve Fitzsimons was limited in his personnel for this game and opted to play his starting five nearly until halftime. He was forced to make a change when Joe Morant picked up his third foul. Two subsequent three point shots from Martin Dowdall put Solent 43 - 40 ahead at the break. Morant fouled out early in the second half, but Solent just about held onto the lead as the game continued. Guy Nicholas was called for a charge when scoring a basket that would have put Solent five points ahead with three minutes remaining. That let Bury in and as Solent's passing was matched only in its inaccuracy from the free throw line, Bury scrambled home 84 - 85 (Dowdall 28, Nicholas 24).

More disappointment followed for Solent when the next visitors to Fleming Park, Brixton Topcats, ousted them from the National Trophy at the second round stage. In truth, Solent were never able to match the running game of the Brixton team and their final tally of just 61 points was the lowest of the season so far. At one stage, Solent had closed to within eight points of the Brixton total, but the result never looked in doubt as Solent lost 61 - 78.

A visit to newly promoted Mid-Sussex followed. Solent suffered a setback when Joe Morant was delayed en route and by the time he arrived it was to the usual situation of chasing the superior points total of the opposition. Eight points behind at halftime, Solent produced their best spell of the match and closed to 58 - 59. A handful of points separated the teams for a time until Mid-Sussex pulled away to win 74 - 86. Arnie Hoffman on his debut scored 7 points and took some useful rebounds as he began to get to know his new team-mates.

Ware Rebels were the next visitors to Solent. They had only lost one match so far in the league before this final game in December 1995. Solent, on the other hand, had won only one match. As expected on such an occasion, nothing is certain. Solent - playing well above their normal level - were in the game from the start, despite Ware holding most of the early initiative. Fouls galore marred the first half with Alex Byrne and Martin Dowdall picking up three apiece. Eventually, Ware seemed to have gained the upper hand when they led 49 - 64, but some brilliant outside shooting from Byrne and Dowdall brought Solent right back into the game. A desperate finale ensued once Byrne had put Solent 72 - 71 ahead with minutes remaining. Ware took the lead again but two long shots by Dowdall levelled the scores with five seconds remaining (82 - 82). There were no more points in normal time and therefore overtime followed. Arnie Hoffman scored with 25 seconds remaining in the overtime period to put Solent one point ahead but free throws awarded to Ware finally put pay to Solent's efforts, 92 - 95 (Dowdall 26, Byrne 22). With Oldham and Rochdale surprisingly winning against Nottingham, it meant Solent were joint bottom of the league with just two points at the Christmas break.

A new year ... a new beginning? The first visitors to Fleming Park were Nottingham Knights, just two points and three places above Solent. Without Joe Morant (holiday) Solent were limited in their guard options and when an out-of-form Martin Dowdall fouled out just three minutes into the second half, the situation became desperate. Already having to play catch-up to a not very inspiring Nottingham team, Solent were guilty of too many fouls and turnovers. In all 51 fouls were recorded in the game where five players were back on the bench having fouled-out. Solent tumbled to a 74 - 90 defeat (Nicholas 27).

Next up at home were Oldham Celtics - sharing bottom place in the league with Solent. Joe Morant was back in the team, but Guy Nicholas announced that this would be his final game before transferring to Poole in the second division. Solent started well enough and built up a comfortable, if not commanding, first half lead. Arnie Hoffman missed most of the second half when a collision on-court left him with a gashed mouth. Still Solent led, by eight points, with six minutes remaining, but they did not look confident. Once Oldham drew level at 75 all, the home team's confidence visibly drained away. Oldham took the lead, Andy Rowlands scored to level the game, then Oldham stole through to take the match 80 - 84 (Dowdall 27).

Roy Lewis

With Nicholas having departed, Solent at the foot of the table and the final transfer deadline approaching, these were desperate times for Solent. A glimmer of hope appeared when Mick Byrne was able to persuade Drew Sewell to join the cash starved club for the fourth time of asking. After being released by Birmingham, Sewell had been training with Solent to keep match fit.

Solent next had to travel to Cardiff for a tough league fixture. Once again Cardiff's Chris Harper, with 52 points, proved to be too much of a handful for Solent, who had given Alex Byrne the task of man-marking him. Sewell's presence though helped the Solent players raise their game. Although 17 points behind midway through the second half Solent staged a fighting rally before going down 85 - 88 (Sewell 32) with Alex Byrne's last second three point attempt rimming the basket but failing to drop.

Brixton provided the next opposition for Solent on a road trip. Disaster struck when Sewell pulled a calf muscle early in the game. After having scored just one basket, he took no further part in the game. Instead it was Arnie Hoffman who took centre stage as he scored 17 points in a low scoring game. With just three minutes left Brixton only led by two points (50 - 52). But Solent then suffered one of their poor spells and let the game slip (55 - 65).

The return of Roy Lewis, who last played in September, proved another ray of hope for Solent who entertained Plymouth in a league match. Apart from a reasonable spell either side of halftime, Solent failed to get enough cohesiveness into their play and with defence a weak link they were soon in trouble. When Alex Byrne levelled the score on the stroke of halftime, it seemed that Solent had finally clicked. In the second half however they relied too heavily on Sewell for the scoring. Although he scored 38 points, not enough came from the other members of the team as Solent went down again (85 - 99).

Roy Lewis was unavailable for Solent's next trip which was to unbeaten leaders Crystal Palace. Despite their bottom-of-the-league status, it was Solent who made all the early running in this match. After an early eleven points from Drew Sewell, it was not until nearly halftime before Crystal Palace were able to take the lead. A hat trick of three pointers from Alex Byrne kept Solent in the match at 51 - 53 before a calf injury to Martin Dowdall and Joe Morant's fifth foul halted their challenge. In Arnie Hoffman's last game before returning to Germany, Solent had played above themselves, but eventually conceded the match 62 - 77.

Ten years after last playing for Solent, Ron Whitehead made an appearance for Solent's next home match against Coventry Crusaders. Having played well against Crystal Palace there was more confidence shown by the Solent team in this meeting with a side that had only been beaten once in the season. Once again, it was Drew Sewell who was constantly available to score points. He helped the home team to a 38 - 30 halftime lead. But whereas Solent had been able to contain Dip Donaldson to just ten first half points, the American cut loose in the second half to add 24 more points of his own and help Coventry to a 70 - 79 win. Drew Sewell had scored 25 and he was followed in the scoring by a less than match fit Ron Whitehead with 15 points.

Six months had passed since Solent's last win, against Oldham Celtics in the first game of the season. Martin Dowdall's injury kept him out of the long trip north to face Bury and Solent could only muster seven fit players for the trip, including the return of Roy Lewis. A bruising encounter took place in a match riddled with fouls but one that allowed the experience of Drew Sewell, Ron Whitehead and Roy Lewis to be of use. With barely a minute left, Sewell scored from the free throw line to level the scores at 85 all. Joe Morant then took a vital rebound as Bury missed their shot and when Sewell was fouled with just four seconds remaining, he calmly scored the two shots to give Solent a deserved victory (87 - 85).

Thirteen months had passed since Solent had last won a league game at Fleming Park, but hopes were high as the next visitors, Mid-Sussex Magic took the court. This time it was Ron Whitehead who took the eye as he scored, rebounded and defended in brilliant fashion. Although Drew Sewell took the scoring honours and coach Steve Fitzsimons reminded everyone that it was a team performance, it was Whitehead who stole the show. At one time Solent led by 25 points before being pulled back in before the end, but at last the patient supporters had their reward with a 84 - 72 win (Sewell 31, Whitehead 25).

The two top scorers in the Mid-Sussex Magic victory were both unavailable for the trip to play Ware Rebels. With Martin Dowdall also missing his third match because of an ear infection, it was a depleted side that managed to stay with the home team for most of the first half. With Roy Lewis cutting a swathe through the home defence on several occasions Solent were only ten points adrift at the interval. However, the young, inexperienced side crumbled at the start of the second half. Once coach Steve Fitzsimons realised that the game was as good as lost, he gave valuable court time to a crop of Solent youngsters who were in the team - Ian Broadsmith, Jason LeGoff, Ian Chambers, Chris Sheldrick and Dave Martin. Solent's recent mini-revival came to a sudden end with this 57 - 91 defeat in which Roy Lewis scored 21 points.

Back row: Drew Sewell, Richard Game, Andy Rowlands, Mick Byrne, Richard Bell, Steve Witt, Chris Mills
Front row: Roy Lewis, Guy Nicholas, Joe Morant, Martin Dowdall, Alex Byrne, Ian Broadsmith
On floor: Glen Follett

The final home game of the season was against Stockton Mohawks. It turned out to be a heartbreaking occasion for the Solent team and fans when, after leading throughout the match Solent let Stockton in to grab the final honours 90 - 94 (Sewell 39, Whitehead 24). The turning point came when Joe Morant was fouled out when Solent held the slenderest of leads.

After the match, Andy Rowlands picked up the Player of the Year award and Alex Byrne was given the Players' Player award. Just two matches now remained - both of which would require victories if Solent were to avoid the final place in the league.

The first of the two games was a visit to Nottingham Knights. Missing only Martin Dowdall from the usual starting line-up, Solent made a positive start with Drew Sewell scoring heavily. With Roy Lewis, Alex Byrne and Ron Whitehead all chipping in, Solent were ahead for the majority of the first half which ended with Nottingham scoring a fortunate three pointer. This seemed to give the home side an impetus and they were generally in front thereafter, although Solent fought for every ball. Three minutes from time Joe Morant fouled out for the second successive match. With Solent re-organising, Nottingham pulled seven points clear which was too big a gap for Solent despite a late flurry of points. Solent lost 90 - 93 (Sewell 35) to condemn them to last spot in the league table.

Solent saved their highest points total for the final game of the season - away to Stockton Mohawks - but still finished as the losing team! Going forward Solent were strong with Drew Sewell and Ron Whitehead scoring 55 points between them. Defensively, however, Solent were torn apart by a series of fast breaks from the Stockton team. The final defeat (95 - 100) was Solent's nineteenth out of twenty-two starts, nearly half of which had been by less than double figures.

(Division 1)
Played Won Lost For Against Difference Points
1 Crystal Palace 22 22 0 1989 1337 +652 44
2 Coventry Crusaders 22 19 3 1866 1627 +239 38
3 Ware Rebels 22 17 5 1864 1713 +151 33*
4 Cardiff Phoenix 22 14 8 1897 1845 +52 28
5 Bury Wildcats 22 10 12 1785 1861 -76 26
6 Stockton Mohawks 22 10 12 1939 2060 -121 20
7 Brixton Topcats 22 9 13 1557 1631 -74 18
8 Mid Sussex Magic 22 9 13 1736 1778 -42 18
9 Nottingham Knights 22 7 15 1630 1764 -134 14
10 Plymouth Raiders 22 7 15 1731 1785 -54 14
11 Oldham Celtics 22 5 17 1682 2042 -360 10
12 Solent Stars 22 3 19 1760 1990 -230 6
* One point deducted

No comments: