Part of his hopes were pinned on a new American signing. The club had lacked an overseas player of late and in 6' 2" Eric Wills, who had impressed Mick Byrne at several summer camps, the team would have a regular point scorer. Wills would replace Ron Whitehead who had helped out at the conclusion of the previous season. Otherwise the side would have a familiar look, including Roy Lewis, Drew Sewell and Martin Dowdall who would provide the main experience. Coach Byrne was also hoping to sign Mark Scott for another term with the club.
The league had expanded to 14 clubs with newcomers Liverpool, Oxford, Westminster and Croydon replacing Crystal Palace (accepted by the Basketball League) and Oldham. The expansion meant that Solent were able to continue in Division One despite finishing at the foot of the table in the previous season. The National Trophy competition took on a new format with Solent playing one match against four other teams in a pool arrangement.
The opening match in the National Trophy was a home game against second division South Bank. Work permit problems denied Solent the services of Eric Wills, but it seemed not to hinder them as they quickly built up a 25 - 7 lead. South Bank briefly rallied but with three quarters of the match gone Solent were comfortably ahead 60 - 42. Then followed a period where Solent could not score regularly and their rebounding was non-existent. At full time the score was 70 all and the rot continued from the home team's perspective as they eventually lost 81 - 86. (Dowdall 22, Lewis 22).
If ever Solent needed to bounce back, this was the occasion. Their next match followed just four days later at the Bracknell Sports Centre against Thames Valley B. For a while it looked as if Solent could not get out of the doldrums as they found difficulty in establishing any kind of influence on the game. However, gradually the team got its act together and a second half tally of 66 points helped them to a 101 - 85 point win (Sewell 31, Lewis 26).
A week later found Solent in London to play another second stream team from a Basketball League club, London Towers B. Solent were at a disadvantage with the absence of coach Mick Byrne and players Drew Sewell, Joe Morant and Craig Metcalf. It was a newcomer to the team, Andy Luckett, who drew first blood for the visitors, scoring four early points. With the help of a second player recently signed from Portsmouth, Steve Davison, Solent managed to keep their noses in front for most of the game. Regular scoring from coach for the night, Martin Dowdall, and Roy Lewis helped bring the game to an exciting climax. Having battled back from a seven-point deficit, Solent went into the last minute leading by just two points. Davison was then fouled and although he missed the two free throws, Dowdall gained the rebound before being fouled himself. Although only able to convert one of the two shots, this was enough to give Solent the game 89 - 88 as Towers could only manage one more score in the remaining time (Lewis 24).
The final pool game was another away match, this time an all First Division clash with Mid-Sussex Magic. Solent had Drew Sewell back for this game, but he was unable to stop Solent from falling to an 88 - 114 defeat despite scoring 26 points himself. Roy Lewis led the Solent scoring with 27 points. There were encouraging performances from newcomers Mike Sampson and Ben Peacock.
The surprising group winners were London Towers B with Mid-Sussex, Thames Valley B and Solent each recording 4 points. South Bank brought up the rear with just the one win - over Solent Stars. This meant that Solent would have to wait to see if they had qualified. In the event, their adverse match points difference told against them, despite being the only team to beat the pool winners.
Mick Byrne's unavailability, occasioned by a heart attack, meant that Jimmie Guymon took over the mid-week coaching sessions prior to Solent opening their league campaign, a home game against Plymouth Raiders.
Martin Dowdall was acting as player/coach for Solent in the match and he was without the services of Drew Sewell (work). Whilst the starting five of Andy Rowlands, Joe Morant, Alex Byrne, Roy Lewis and Dowdall himself remained fresh, Solent were always a threat. However, once they began to tire Plymouth were able to slowly forge ahead to gain a 15-point halftime advantage. Solent fell further behind in the second half to lose 74 - 99 (Lewis 25).
Prior to their next match, Solent redoubled their efforts to obtain work permits for Eric Wills and 6' 9" Todd McNeill - a second American. McNeill already possessed a permit for playing for Cardiff, but when they released him, the process had to start all over again.
The next match - a home fixture against Bury & Bolton - saw a first coaching appearance for Jimmie Guymon. Also there was the return welcome presence of Mick Byrne - who had ruled himself out of coaching for some time to come after his heart attack. Early on Solent took a 14 - 7 point lead, but once Bury had caught up it was nip and tuck for a while. Bury had American owner Richard Moses making his debut after leaving premier club Chester Jets and it was he who provided Bury with most of their impetus. A three-minute period without a Solent point left them adrift and they were never able to close the gap, losing 74 - 90 (Lewis 26, Sewell 21).
In the two weeks that followed before the visit to unbeaten Ware Rebels, Jimmie Guymon was joined by Paul Philp to try and revitalise the players. Guymon's commitments to the Solent Ladies team meant that there were inevitable clashes of fixtures which prevented him coaching in the match.
Such was the case when Solent went to table-topping Ware Rebels. Without Drew Sewell (work) and with Roy Lewis having a rare scoring off day, Solent were no match for the home team. Some respite came when Ware used their bench players for five minutes and Solent restricted them to just one point whilst scoring nine themselves. In truth, Solent never threatened and eventually lost 60 - 99 (Dowdall 20).
Jimmie Guymon was now fully in charge of training and insisted that he would only select players who regularly attended. This posed problems for Drew Sewell and Roy Lewis, the club's senior players, whose work commitments meant that they had to miss training on occasion. With Todd McNeill's work permit problems not solved and Eric Wills having long since given up any hope of obtaining one, things looked bleak for Solent.
It was therefore a very young and inexperienced group of players that formed the basis of Solent's team for their next away fixture at Westminster Warriors. This was the opening match at Westminster's new home and Solent played their full part in not spoiling the party by going down 55 - 106. Solent conceded 31 turnovers as if to demonstrate their inexperience.
Team captain Martin Dowdall missed the next home game against Stockton Mohawks because of tonsillitis. Coach Guymon was insistent on his training policy and also in turning to the younger players in the club for help. In particular, 17-year-old Steve Davison was proving a useful asset. On this particular night, Davison played in a pre-game Solent Junior match (scoring 16 points) before coming on in the starting five of the senior team. He was one of the early scorers in the game, ghosting through for two points, before Stockton - bigger and more experienced - took control of the game. Davison eventually scored 18 points in the game to follow the efforts of Andy Rowlands who had a total of 19. Solent never threatened the Stockton total in the 72 - 99 defeat.
A basement battle followed with a visit to Cardiff. A scrappy match between two poor teams was the view those watching. Cardiff had sacked coach Curtis Xavier at the beginning of the week and for a time it looked as if the Solent team might be able to take advantage of that. Matt Eames and newcomer Simon Morton scored early points. Cardiff led 36 - 48 when Solent were awarded four free throws for technical fouls. Steve Davison could only land one of the four. Once Martin Dowdall fouled out with seven minutes remaining, Solent's fate was sealed and they dropped to the foot of the table with the 62 - 79 defeat.
Brixton Topcats were the next visitors to Fleming Park. With only one win to their credit, the visitors could look ready to provide Solent with their first league win. Midway through the first half Solent were level (16 - 16) but not looking confident. At halftime the game was still close, but it took nearly seven minutes before Alex Byrne could open Solent's second half account and by then the game was out of reach. Coach Guymon, puzzlingly, was reluctant to use either Joe Morant or Martin Dowdall, even after Andy Rowlands fouled out with eleven minutes remaining. Solent lost 59 - 92.
After a miserable run of defeats it was with some trepidation that Solent set out for Haywards Heath to play Mid-Sussex Magic. This feeling was reinforced as Solent fell 20 points behind in the first half. Solent welcomed the return of 44-year-old Paul Philp on the court after a three-year absence since his retirement. He was able to keep Solent to their task and help them in a fight back that eventually left them just cruelly one point short of the Mid-Sussex total (94 - 95). Martin Dowdall had led the scoring revival with 39 points of his own. He had been well supported by Steve Davison and Matt Eames. Eleven points from Alex Byrne in the final three minutes in his match total of 21 meant that Mid-Sussex needed to desperately hold on for their close win.
Another close game followed when Solent entertained Liverpool in the final home fixture of 1996. Andy Rowlands got Solent off to a good start with a lobbed shot that opened the scoring. Liverpool clung to their task and with Solent giving the ball away too often, it was the visitors that led 39 - 50. A 10 - 2 spell of scoring at the start of the second half gave hope to the small but noisy home crowd. Matt Eames took Solent to within one point but handling errors cost Solent dear as Liverpool forged ahead again. Martin Dowdall (22 points) sparked another Solent revival to level the scores at 77 all. However, Solent failed to take the initiative at that point and lost 77 - 81.
The final match of the year was an away trip to Oxford Dons. If Solent were looking for a change of fortune, then it was not to be. The game proved almost a foregone conclusion from the first jump ball and Solent were outclassed throughout by the young Oxford team and lost 68 - 113.
Would the start of a new year bring about a change of fortune for Solent Stars? The first opponents, Nottingham, had only one win under their belt when they arrived at Fleming Park on January 2nd, 1997. Jimmie Guymon was persisting in his 'no training - no playing' rule which he steadfastly refused to elaborate on to the press, even though the only potential Solent match winners - Roy Lewis and Drew Sewell - were both excluded by this policy. Their absence was especially noted in this game when Solent fell behind 24 - 57 by halftime. The inept display continued as Solent found it impossible to raise their game against mediocre opponents. It was small wonder that the average of 350 spectators at last season's matches had fallen to less than 200. Solent lost 60 - 102 and Mick Byrne publicly apologised to those spectators that had come to the game. He said he had one or two players - notably American Mike Sableski - to whom he was talking, but he also noted that that the club's financial position was not strong.
Mick Byrne's programme notes (January 1997)
A long trip to Stockton followed. The captain, Martin Dowdall was ruled out with a heavy cold, which left Andy Rowlands to have a more dominant role. This he achieved and with the aid of 19 points from Alex Byrne and stoic performances from Joe Morant and Paul Philp, Solent put up a creditable performance before succumbing 79 - 98 to Stockton.
A weekend's respite followed but this was followed by a double-header weekend with a home game against Guildford to be followed by a trip to Plymouth. Jimmie Guymon at last spoke to the press and said that he was perplexed as to what to do to stop the losing run. "We have several 16 and 17 year olds in the team who play against teams that are much bigger and stronger than us." With the transfer deadline approaching, Solent signed Jason Colgan, who had drifted away from the club two seasons before to concentrate on playing in local basketball. Sebastian Scott - a student at Southampton Institute who had playing experience with Gloucester Jets - was also brought into the squad. Most surprisingly, the 48-year-old Jimmie Guymon had also put pen to paper. "There's no way I can play a whole game, but if it helps the team I am willing to go out and give it a go," he remarked.
None of the signings could help Solent in their home game against Guildford. With their man-mountain defence and the high scoring of Julio Politi (30 points), Solent were outclassed and fell to a 76 - 110 defeat.
The next day the team travelled to Plymouth where they were again run ragged, being thumped 71 - 113.
Despite these reverses, bottom of the table Solent Stars showed there was nothing wrong with their team spirit or application when they travelled to play Bury & Bolton at the Castle Leisure Centre. Without Steve Davison (twisted ankle), who had been the top scorer at Plymouth, Martin Dowdall was left with the mantle of keeping the scoreboard ticking over. So successful was the early shooting of Solent that they were in with a chance of a first victory throughout. This was despite Dowdall picking up three early fouls and sitting out much of the first half and a head injury to Andy Rowlands. Simon Morton missed two free throws that would have put Solent within one point of Bury with minutes remaining. Despite a timeout called by Jimmie Guymon with two minutes remaining, Solent were not able to follow his game plan. Half of Bury's winning margin of 13 points (67 - 80) came in the final ten seconds of the game as Solent fouled to try to gain possession. This was Solent's 100th game since their return to the first division and of those, 78 had been losses.
With only two defeats, Ware Rebels were the next visitors to Solent. Bigger, stronger and far more experienced, Ware had little difficulty in dealing with the home team even though as reporter David Ogilvie put it, "Ware showed that they have few equals when it comes to a bit of shirt-pulling, back-chatting, body checking or general obstruction." Solent were hampered by the loss of Rowlands with a foot injury. In two separate periods of five minutes each, Solent only scored two points. The result was a 72 - 116 defeat (Davison 23).
A visit to Coventry Crusaders was next on the agenda for Solent. Andy Rowlands was still injured and Solent again lacked height with only a young Simon Morton to match the bigger Coventry players. Solent again showed battling qualities and achieved their third highest score of the season. However, for the sixth time in the last eight matches the opponents netted over 100 points to leave Solent the losers (77 - 104).
The Eastleigh Weekly News reporter, David Ogilvie, summed up the situation prior to Solent's next home game against Westminster Warriors. "Most of us hadn't even thought about where to go for our summer holidays the time Solent last won a match in the league. The trouble is it is last year's summer holiday that we are talking about." Solent's poor run was not relieved in this match when a fast moving, although erratic, Westminster team proved too much for Solent to handle. Solent had now lost Andy Rowlands for the rest of the season. Martin Dowdall had tried to hold things together, but when he demanded a breather in the second half, Solent fell away. Without Matt Eames also, Solent had turned to youngsters Ben Peacock and Simon Morton for more court time than they could have expected. There was also a lively debut from 17-year-old Lawrie Vormorwah. It was all to no avail as Solent went down 62 - 87.
On March 6th, nearly two months after signing for Solent, Mike Sableski finally received a work permit giving him permission to play. Although not match fit because of the long period away from match action, it was ironic that Sableski's first game should be against the team for whom he had previously been registered, Cardiff Heat. After scoring the first points of the game (in his 26 point haul) Sableski took several rebounds to give Solent some form of defensive shape for the first time in a while. Solent led 48 - 44 at halftime and with Joe Morant driving them forward, and another newcomer, Sebastian Scott helping, Solent looked capable of achieving a first league win. However, they tired, turned the ball over several times and lost 89 - 100.
For the visit of Mid-Sussex Magic, Solent Stars were thrown into another dilemma that often faces teams when things are not going well. Solent's main guard, Martin Dowdall, was now to miss his second match in succession. Unfortunately for Solent he was now joined by the other main playmaker, Joe Morant. More responsibility was therefore placed on 44 year old Paul Philp. He was joined on court by 48-year-old Jimmie Guymon. Guymon had played a minor on-court role for several of the preceding games, but this time he decided to lead by example. The result was a top-scoring performance of 24 points. Assistant coach, Steve Fitzsimons, described it as "an amazing performance. He was the oldest player out there yet still he was the first one to get down court for us." For all his effort and enthusiasm, however, Guymon could not end the losing run as Solent lost 81 - 93.
The injury and absence (Joe Morant and Martin Dowdall both in America) crisis continued for the next match away to Liverpool ATAC who occupied the league position above Solent, albeit with six league wins to Solent's none. To add to Solent's player problems, the juniors had an important fixture at the same time. Solent were only able to travel with seven players, including a 15 year old Alan McDonald who was unable to get any court time in a closely fought match which saw Jimmie Guymon play throughout! At various times Solent trailed by 13 points and then 10 points before a late rally meant that when Mike Sableski scored in the last few seconds, Solent drew level at 93 all. In a cruel twist of fate, with no visible scoreboard and no off-court coach to advise, Paul Philp believed that Solent still trailed by one and committed a foul with one second to go in an attempt to gain possession. Liverpool gratefully accepted the shots and won 93 - 95 with no overtime necessary. Sableski (42), Alex Byrne (22) and Jimmie Guymon (21) were Solent's leading scorers.
Frustrated at the lack of professionalism shown by his players, coach Jimmie Guymon berated his squad for not turning up in sufficient time ahead of the home clash with Coventry Crusaders. "If you don't turn up on time and mentally prepare, you will not win games at this level," he said. Proof of his thinking was demonstrated when Solent went down 78 - 97 despite being within eight points of their opponents with just five minutes remaining.
The final home game was against Oxford. Solent were never in contention and demonstrated why they occupied a bottom of the league position, well adrift of any other club. At one stage Solent trailed by 25 points in the first half before they pulled back to 39 - 52 at halftime. Oxford then ran away with the second half to leave Solent with yet another defeat, 66 - 106 (Sableski 20). Coach Jimmie Guymon admitted that, "If I had been a paid coach I would have been fired by now." However, that would have been a cruel decision based on the ability of the players available. Having taken on the role to help the club out after Mick Byrne's illness, Guymon had demonstrated an enthusiasm not always mirrored by his players.
The end of season awards saw the Players' Player award go to Martin Dowdall whilst the supporters picked out the only ever present player, Alex Byrne.
The season finally ground to a halt the following day when Solent travelled to Nottingham. The 82 - 103 defeat suffered there brought the season to an end without a Solent victory and a return to Division Two unavoidable. Coach Jimmie Guymon said that he would now be concentrating on a youth programme and that his senior men's coaching job would have to go to someone else.
|10||Bury and Bolton||26||11||15||2040||2176||-136||36|
|11||Mid Sussex Magic||26||10||16||2167||2324||-157||36|