Back row: Ben Peacock, Martin Dowdall, Colin Irish, Joe Morant, Faisal Al-Awqati
Front row: Jason LeGoff, Masai Ujiri, Craig Metcalf, Alan Cunningham, Jon Rumsey
As usual there was much activity in the basketball close season over the summer. Mick Byrne parted with the club as a new consortium was established which included Bob Paulley, a local businessman, and Jim Rumsey. Two new national league teams were accepted into the league, one based in Southampton and another in Portsmouth. The latter club was under the direction of Mick Byrne and included ex-Solent players Alex Byrne, American Mike Sableski and Andy Rowlands. Southampton Trailblazers meanwhile had secured the services of Drew Sewell and Roy Lewis.
The new Solent partnership set about planning for their future in Division Two by revealing plans for a School of Excellence and appointed Steve Chant to run a junior section. Closer liaison was made with the English Schools basketball organisation locally and the club entered into talks with the Solent Pacers Women's team with a view to playing double-header matches at Fleming Park.
However, the biggest news in the summer was the signing of 41 year old, 6' 7" Alan Cunningham as club player/coach. Cunningham, known as "Swoop", played with the Harlem Globetrotters before playing in Belgium with Anderlecht. He came into British basketball in 1982 with Doncaster before moving on to Brighton, Portsmouth, Glasgow, Kingston, Worthing and London Towers. He had won honours with all those clubs including seven league titles and Wembley Championships along with numerous cups, individual awards and international appearances. He was probably best known to the southern supporters for his recent three-year spell with Worthing who he had coached from relative obscurity to three consecutive Wembley wins.
Cunningham's local recruitment gave him some players from the previous season - Joe Morant, Martin Dowdall, Simon Morton and Craig Metcalf. Steve Davison and Matt Eames had both left for American colleges. Ex-Solent player Mark Scott was also in the frame for the season. 17-year-old Jason LeGoff, from the Isle of Wight, was also snapped up by Cunningham.
Solent's first test was a National Trophy home Pool tie against Reading Rockets. With the previous season's 26 consecutive league defeats behind them, it was a testing time for the 'new' Solent. The first quarter was a tense affair with the teams level at its end. However, Cunningham and Scott soon then got amongst the points - scoring 38 of Solent's total of 44 in the first half. Gradually the team pulled away to a comfortable win 82 - 55 (Scott 24) and bring smiles back to the players' and supporters' faces.
Chance had thrown Solent into an early meeting with the newly formed Portsmouth team when they travelled to play at the Mountbatten Centre on a Wednesday evening for a cup game. Solent included Jon Rumsey in their squad for his first game since having to 'retire' three years earlier with injury problems. Inspired by new player/coach Alan Cunningham, Solent were never really troubled as they won the game 82 - 59 (Cunningham 24).
Two more signings were made before the next game - a guard, Andrew Knight, from Worthing and an Army player, Simon Morton. This gave Solent the unusual experience of having two Simon Mortons in their squad.
A tough away fixture at Westminster Warriors was the next cup fixture. The game was played at a frantic pace and was full of errors. Solent trailed at first but then denied Westminster a point in a four-minute spell that enabled them to catch up by halftime. With just one minute remaining, Solent led 67 - 65. Any danger of Solent squandering all their hard work was averted as Mark Scott, Martin Dowdall and Jon Rumsey all scored to give Solent a 71 - 66 win (Cunningham 27, Scott 20).
The first league game paired Solent with London Towers B at the Wembley Arena. The London team was a strongly fancied outfit having disposed of Southampton Trailblazers by a large score and then another big win away at Aston (111 - 77). Solent, without a league win in 30 matches, quickly went into an 8 - 1 lead which London pulled back before another burst by Solent took them 23 - 12 in front after 12 minutes. London showed their mettle and briefly went ahead 45 - 48 in the second half before Alan Cunningham and Mark Scott again stamped their authority on the game. With Craig Metcalf having his best game for some time, Solent ran out winners (65 - 59).
Derby had withdrawn from the league shortly before Solent were due to play them so a hastily arranged game with second division rivals Bournemouth Dolphins followed. It took place at Fleming Park on the next Saturday. With a trophy donated by Radio Solent, the teams went about their task with no quarter given. Alan Cunningham sat out most of the first half to give more court time to the less experienced players. Whilst all the players got on the scoresheet, it was left to Mark Scott to keep the score ticking along. However, a lax last few minutes enabled Bournemouth to draw level at 88 all. With just one second remaining, Jon Rumsey was fouled in his three point attempt. Although he only scored one of the three attempts, Mark Scott then stepped up for two more successful free throws as Bournemouth were punished for protesting too much. Solent won the game 91 - 88 (Scott 25). A long road trip to play Flintshire at the Deesside Leisure Centre followed. Craig Metcalf was absent through injury and when both Jason LeGoff and Jon Rumsey picked up injuries, Solent were stretched for cover. However, another gritty away performance led to a 79 - 67 win (Cunningham 22, Scott 20). A notable feature was the lack of ice to treat the injuries which led to Jim Rumsey visiting the adjacent ice rink, where he was told that they too had no ice available!
The basketball world was shocked when Solent pulled off another signing in the following week. Colin Irish once again paired up with Alan Cunningham. Irish and Cunningham had shared 11 major trophies in their days together at Kingston, Portsmouth and Worthing. Described by Cunningham as "one of the best players ever to grace these shores," the 36 year old, 6' 6" Great Britain and England international could have signed for any number of top flight clubs. In the previous season he had played in France before joining Manchester Giants at the end of the season.
Colin Irish's debut, at home to Chessington, provided an opportunity for player/coach Alan Cunningham to rest himself for most of the first half. Solent were by then comfortably ahead (32 - 23) in a half where only three fouls were called - and two of those were on Colin Irish! The second half continued in the same vein with Solent winning 79 - 63.
A visit to Cardiff followed and Solent were made to work hard by the young home squad. With Joe Morant picking up four early fouls and Martin Dowdall struggling with an ankle injury, it was left to Jon Rumsey to take on the role of guard. Leading by only three points with four minutes to play, it took a moment of inspiration by Mark Scott - nipping in to grab a rebound and score whilst the Cardiff players hesitated - to give Solent a breathing space before they went on to win 85 - 74 (Scott 30, Cunningham 22, Irish 22).
Alan Cunningham received the Coach of the Month Award for October. However, he was disappointed with the news that Martin Dowdall's injury would keep him out for a month. The award for Alan Cunningham proved to be a false dawn when Solent's proud unbeaten record was lost in their home encounter with South Bank Bulls, for whom Paul Mundy-Castle scored 31 points. Cunningham could have blamed the injury list which included Craig Metcalf, Jon Rumsey, Martin Dowdall and Andy Knight - all sidelined - and Joe Morant leaving the game after only eight minutes. However, he pointed to the missed free throws (11) as the main cause. A three pointer on the final buzzer from Cunningham had levelled the scores in front of the season's biggest home crowd. Another one from Colin Irish had brought Solent to within two points of South Bank as they played catch-up in the overtime period. He was then called for travelling, which led to his departure from the game because of the subsequent technical foul for protesting too much. Mundy-Castle provided the final points as South Bank took the honours 86 - 90 (Irish 29, Cunningham 28).
Bob Glanville made a starting five appearance for the first time in Solent's next home match against Swindon Sonics. The 6' 5" Glanville was a local league player who had been training with Solent at the recommendation of Mark Scott. He was joined by Jon Rumsey, Colin Irish, Mark Scott and Jason LeGoff who gave the team a confident start in a game where the home team was always in charge as they moved to a 100 - 61 win (Scott 23).
Solent's next home game was against First Division opposition in the form of Stevenage Rebels - a team that had moved from Ware, having won the league the previous season. This National Trophy game was to be Solent's last at Fleming Park for some time since a new floor was about to be laid. Over 500 fans turned up for the event and they were not disappointed as the two teams slugged out a close encounter. Several three pointers from Ware established them a 2 - 10 lead, followed by two from Alan Cunningham and one from Faisal Al-Awqati who had signed for Solent in the previous week. Al-Awqati was a student at Southampton University. Craig Metcalf later came off the bench to score three quick baskets as Solent took a 47 - 38 interval lead. A furious second half followed with Solent keeping the upper hand until both Cunningham and Irish picked up technical fouls in the closing stages to allow Stevenage to narrow the gap. Solent progressed to the quarter-final with an 87 - 82 win (Cunningham 29).
With Fleming Park under repair, Solent were now faced with five consecutive away fixtures. Another signing was made by the club, this time an ex-Solent player, Masai Ujiri. The actual signing was only given clearance twenty minutes before the start as club secretary Jim Rumsey finally tracked down the league official who could give the okay that all the paperwork had been completed correctly. In the event, the opponents, Slough Chargers were easily overcome. Only once did they threaten to come back into the game and then Solent brought on their starting five - Cunningham, Irish, Rumsey, Scott and LeGoff - and took over again. Indicative of Solent's will to win nonetheless was underlined by a gritty show of determination from Jon Rumsey. He launched himself to stop the ball going out of play behind the Solent basket and somehow managed to flick it up-court to Colin Irish who set-up an unlikely basket. Solent won 82 - 55 in a game where the opponents only committed six fouls throughout.
The next trip for Solent was the quarter-final of the National Trophy against a team currently third in Division One - Solihull Chiefs. Once again, Solent were not overawed by higher league opponents, even when a first half head injury put Craig Metcalf out of the game. But for foul trouble by the Solent big three - Cunningham, Scott and Irish - Solent would have won more convincingly than the 105 - 90 final score (Cunningham 30).
Solent arranged a friendly match against Worthing during the following week. With neither side at full strength, Solent ran out winners 112 - 90 (Irish 31, Cunningham 28, Ujiri 22).
Bob Glanville twisted his ankle in the Worthing game and so missed the trip to Liverpool ATAC, the team relegated with Solent at the end of the previous season. Another absentee through injury was Mark Scott, although Solent did once again have the services of Joe Morant who had missed several games. A solid team performance saw Solent through to an 87 - 60 victory.
A tough trip to Northampton 98ers followed, especially since a knee injury would keep out Mark Scott. Ten three point scores from the home team in the first half helped them to a 14 - 30 lead at one stage. By halftime Solent had whittled that back to 38 - 45. When Northampton's long range scoring touch deserted them in the second half, Solent levelled to 57 all by the seventh minute. With three minutes remaining it was 86 all when Jon Rumsey's timely three pointer followed by an Alan Cunningham lay-up gave Solent a cushion which led to the 93 - 89 win (Irish 33, Ujiri 22).
With Fleming Park still unavailable, Solent Stars were forced to play their semi-final home draw match of the National Trophy at the neutral Mountbatten Centre venue. The opponents, First Division Plymouth Raiders, were looking for a second consecutive appearance in the final at Sheffield in January. It was Plymouth's two American players who dictated the game as the weakened Solent team, without Mark Scott, gamely tried to match them. A long three pointer from Colin Irish levelled the score at 35 all at halftime, but it was the visitors who were stronger in the second half as Solent ran into foul trouble. The final score of 76 - 88 (Irish 27) in Plymouth's favour was no disgrace to Solent.
A good start to the first match in 1998, away to Wolverhampton, saw Solent take an early 26 - 8 lead midway through the first half. Coach Alan Cunningham then used the game to give players court time and inevitably the scoring rate dropped. The final score was 102 - 85 (Irish 21) in Solent's favour.
Finally after nearly two months, Solent returned to Fleming Park to give the home supporters an opportunity to welcome Masai Ujiri back - although this would be his seventh match! Over 650 fans turned out to watch the homecoming against high-riding London Towers B. They were treated to a close and exciting game. A mere four points (81 - 77) separated the teams with 50 seconds remaining. Solent played possession basketball and forced a foul from Mike Redd. This was too much for coach Tony Garbelotto who was charged with a technical foul. Colin Irish coolly sank three shots from the free throw line but as he stepped up for his fourth a Towers player accidentally struck him with the ball. Garbelotto inexplicably got himself another technical foul at this juncture and was dismissed from the arena. Solent won 86 - 77 (Irish 32, Ujiri 24) with a final alley-oop basket from Masai Ujiri.
The next game pitched Solent against league rivals Bournemouth who, like Solent, had only lost one game. The attendance on the night at Fleming Park was counted as 759. Another ex-Solent player had joined the squad in the week. Mike Griffiths was brought in to cover for the continued absence of Mark Scott, who had undergone a knee operation. It took a little while for either team to score and it was an unlikely source - Joe Morant - who got Solent under way with a three pointer. The fouls quickly mounted up for Solent and culminated with Alan Cunningham reaching five midway through the second half. Solent went twelve points behind in the first half before scoring more freely to take a 43 - 36 halftime lead. Griffiths' defensive qualities were welcome as Solent ground out an important win, 91 - 81 (Irish 31). This was to be Jon Rumsey's last game in the season having battled hard against illness and injury.
Flintshire were the next visitors to Fleming Park. They had recently acquired a new American player and in their previous game had upset one of Solent's main rivals, South Bank, 90 - 71. This seemed to cut no ice with the Solent squad who raced into a 53 - 34 halftime lead. "I told the guys at halftime that we could either blow Flintshire away or pussyfoot around and try and get the referees involved to liven things up a bit more, but perhaps that was a mistake to give them that choice," said Alan Cunningham after the game. This was because he had just watched Solent allow Flintshire to come back to 79 all with four minutes remaining, before Martin Dowdall scored a couple of big three pointers to give Solent another win, 99 - 82 (Cunningham 25, Irish 20, Ujiri 20).
Two games in the following weekend put Solent in a strong league position. A visit from the Wolverhampton Adante team in front of 600 plus home supporters gave Solent another chance to do a demolition job. Adante reeled in Solent's early burst to level at 21 all midway through the first half. The visitors' coach then made a big mistake when he yelled for his team to put "old man" Colin Irish under pressure. Adante soon found to their cost that Irish still was an able player as he sank two mighty three pointers to put Solent 48 - 36 ahead at the interval. Solent opened their box of tricks to pull further away in the second half with Masai Ujiri, Craig Metcalf and Alan Cunningham all sinking spectacular dunks in the 106 - 84 win (Irish 32, Cunningham 28). The following day Solent travelled to Chessington Wildcats. Solent were unable to regain the flow from the previous evening and struggled at a pedestrian pace until Colin Irish woke them up with a 19th minute three pointer which nosed Solent ahead for the first time since the opening minute. They managed to up the tempo in the second half and eventually came out easy winners, 78 - 57 (Ujiri 26).
The following weekend was also a double header for Solent as first they played the top of the league team and then the team at the foot of the table. Saturday's home match against Cardiff Phoenix, who, like Solent had only lost one match, was a torrid two hour affair. Alan Cunningham was so furious with his team as they allowed an 11 point halftime advantage disappear that he used up both his second half timeouts in the first four minutes. Solent's problems continued to pile up with Masai Ujiri being rested on four fouls, Colin Irish called for a technical foul, Craig Metcalf retiring with a shoulder injury and Cunningham's fury finally boiling over with two quick technical fouls for dissent. Ujiri fouled out with almost eight minutes remaining and Irish had also excited the crowd with a combination of foul and ankle trouble. However, Solent shone through in the face of adversity with Cunningham, fit-again Mark Scott, Martin Dowdall, Joe Morant and Jason LeGoff pulling away in the closing stages and restricting Cardiff to just six points in the closing six minutes for a 103 - 82 win (Cunningham 35, Irish 26). Less than 24 hours later Solent played at Thames Valley B in a game that lasted a mere 65 minutes with Solent being charged for only three fouls. In fact, had Martin Dowdall not been called for a foul with 29 seconds remaining in the second half, they could have achieved a second half clean foul sheet in the 86 - 68 win (Cunningham 23, Ujiri 20).
Yet another double header weekend followed and this time both the matches were away games against teams closely chasing the Solent Stars. Solent had team problems ahead of the first game against Bournemouth Dolphins with injuries to Craig Metcalf (shoulder), Mike Griffiths (nose), Colin Irish (ankle) and Masai Ujiri ('flu). In the event only Mike Griffiths was missing from the squad on the night. A decisive push was made in the seven minutes before halftime when Masai Ujiri and Alan Cunningham scored 19 points between them to give Solent a 44 - 22 halftime lead. In what he described as the best performance of the season, Alan Cunningham was able to sit out most of the second half as his team all got on the scoresheet in the 108 - 69 win (Ujiri 23, Cunningham 21).
The visit to South Bank Bulls the next day gave Solent a chance to avenge their only league defeat of the season against a team that had slipped to fifth place. Although trailing by six points midway through the first half, Solent took a 51 - 39 halftime lead. Solent drew steadily away in the second half that included technical fouls against both coaches to record another success 100 - 78 (Scott 28, Cunningham 22, Ujiri 20).
Solent's next away match was at Swindon Sonics. A large number of Solent fans took the trip to Swindon. In part this was to be present at the final game of Masai Ujiri. The popular Nigerian player had accepted an offer from a Belgian club to help them in their end of season Championship Play-Offs. He had refused a similar offer some weeks before, but the Belgians had then increased it. Ujiri was given a large ovation by the team followers when he was substituted five minutes from the end of the game which Solent won 97 - 77 (Cunningham 35). The win meant that Solent had gone through the season unbeaten away from home in the league with a record of played twelve, won twelve - the first side to do that since the leagues were restructured.
Four home games remained and before the first of those, Solent Stars announced that approval had been given to transfer the ownership of the club to Solent Stars 2000 Ltd which comprised club chairman, Bob Paulley, coach Alan Cunningham and director Jim Rumsey. Equally important was the announcement of Jimmie Guymon to run the Solent Youth Programme. Guymon and his wife, Beverley, had been instrumental through their Young Guns programme in attracting £15,000 of sponsorship through Probe Sports and the government's SportsMatch scheme. To celebrate the event the Young Guns played Bognor Royals in a warm-up game to the Solent Stars match and received the cheque in a halftime ceremony.
Big three pointers from Colin Irish and Ben Peacock got Solent off to a good start against visitors Slough Chargers. Even without Masai Ujiri Solent had no problem in keeping the score ticking over and moving to a 95 - 61 victory (Cunningham 34). A surprise defeat for London Towers B at Flintshire on the same night meant that Solent had won the league.
Liverpool ATAC were the first visitors to Solent after they had won the league and they were unable to provide any upset. Colin Irish scored three consecutive three pointers and was matched in that feat by Ben Peacock as all the Solent players enjoyed the gala occasion in their 103 - 76 win (Cunningham 27, Irish 27).
Solent Stars were presented with the league trophy at the start of the their game against Northampton 89ers. A best-of-the-season crowd of nearly 800 packed into Fleming Park to see the trophy and medals handed over to each squad member before the match. Solent responded by posting their highest score of the season against a Northampton side that they could just meet again in the play-offs. A series of niggling fouls detracted somewhat from the occasion but Solent were comfortable winners, 117 - 97 (Irish 33, Cunningham 32, Scott 29).
Solent had a target in their last league game - against Thames Valley Tigers B. If they wanted to be the league's highest scoring team, they would have to score 121 points. Director Jim Rumsey suggested a target of 127, this being the number of runs scored by the England cricket team in their current match against the West Indies. Colin Irish top-scored, yet amazingly the Great Britain and England international had a lean start to the game, finally stuttering off the mark with one out of two from the free throw line. "When he missed the second free throw I went over and niggled him by saying I'd bring someone else on in his place, " said coach Alan Cunningham. The result was quite staggering as Irish brought the Tigers to their knees with three stupendous three pointers that brought Solent a 56 - 22 lead with three first half minutes remaining. With just over two minutes to go in the match, Martin Dowdall scored to bring the total to 121 and in the remaining time six more points were added to the Solent total to finish with the target 127 points. The final score in the final league game was 127 - 75 (Irish 43, Cunningham 41, Scott 22).
The play-offs beckoned for the club, with a quarter-final home and away tie against Northampton 89ers. For the first of the games, away at Northampton, Solent were backed by a large and noisy contingent of travelling fans. The fans were delighted to see Solent take full control in the first half and go in 60 - 33 ahead. Coach Cunningham was expecting his team to maintain at least that difference at the final buzzer. However, Northampton staged a brave fight back in the second half, in part helped by some controversial refereeing decisions that upset the visiting team. Mark Scott's 29 points came in the first part of the game and as his scoring dried up, so did Solent's. Nonetheless, they were able to return to Fleming Park for the second leg with a 15 point advantage thanks to their 105 - 90 win (Cunningham 27, Irish 25).
In the second leg, over 650 fans turned out to roar Solent on. The home team responded with an awesome display, in part caused by actions of the Northampton team. The first incident was in the sixth minute when Alan Cunningham was 'undercut' by Mark Wilson while scoring with a dunk shot. An incensed Cunningham berated Wilson and bundled him to the floor. Wilson's fall was described by Cunningham as 'amateur dramatics'. Even so, Alan Cunningham was sufficiently fired up to score 53 points in the game! The second main event was a foul on an off-balance Colin Irish as he went for a lay-up. Eventually, Northampton's own players suggested that the perpetrator, Lloyd Cox, go straight to the changing room! A clearly irate Colin Irish then proceeded to score a series of three pointers to take Solent to within a few points of their highest score ever. In the event, a win of 152 - 89 was more than enough to send them to the semi-final.
After the game Alan Cunningham picked up the Player of the Year award with Colin Irish as runner-up. The Players' Player of the Year went to Mark Scott.
South Bank Bulls were to be the semi-final opponents after their 167 - 142 aggregate win over Bournemouth Bears. The Londoners had won at Fleming Park early in the season - Solent's only league defeat - but Solent had gained a useful 100 - 78 win when they visited South Bank. That result proved to be a good form guide for the first leg at the Brixton Recreation Centre. Solent were always in command of the game although never able to establish much of a lead until just after halftime. Coach Cunningham gave all of his bench players court time as Solent ran out winners 100 - 79, only one point less than the margin of the earlier league game (Cunningham 30, Irish 25, Scott 24).
There was an off-court battle of words prior to the return leg. South Bank accused the senior Solent players of intimidating the referees. Alan Cunningham's reply was that it was one thing to play hard, but another to 'talk trash'. He would be unhappy, he said, with a win that was by less than 30 points. As it happened, Solent once again surrendered to the same team that had beaten them at home earlier in the season - and by exactly the same margin of four points (102 - 106). Only two points had separated the teams at the halftime interval and Solent had built up a five point lead midway through the half. With Irish and Cunningham both on four fouls for the last ten minutes, Solent were less effective in defence and South Bank eased their way back into the lead. Solent missed five free throws in the last three minutes and this proved costly. However, the previously established 21-point advantage from the first leg never looked in doubt as Solent lost the game, but won the semi-final (Irish 38, Scott 24).
The Championship Play-Off Final was in the Manchester Nynex Arena and the opponents were London Towers B. The team travelled north on Friday evening. Colin Irish had to turn around at Newbury because he had forgotten his boot insoles! In the morning, the team found that three of their cars had been broken into in the car park of the hotel. One of the cars belonged to Jim Rumsey and contained the team kit - which had disappeared! A search of local woodland brought success - except for several towels and one missing pair of shorts! So it was that the preparation was less than perfect for the event.
Alan Cunningham in the Championship Play-Offs Final
After trailing to an early three pointer, Solent steadily compiled a first half lead that peaked at 29 - 19. Under constant pressure from the young London Towers B team, they had to settle for a 36 - 31 halftime lead. London caught Solent napping at the start of the second half and 13 points on the bounce saw them take their biggest lead at 36 - 44. Solent steadily worked their way back and by the three quarter stage they were 49 - 48 ahead. The lead then changed hands several times until with three minutes left the scores were tied at 64 all. As play helter-skeltered to either end, Solent made the decisive push with Irish and Cunningham both scoring. There followed a period of missed chances, turnovers and massive scrambles under both baskets. Alan Cunningham took three important rebounds (17 in all in the game). Solent should have been in a more comfortable position but they missed eight out of ten shots from the free throw line in the last two minutes to leave them vulnerable when London's top-scorer, Steve Ogunjimi, broke away with only seconds remaining. To the vociferous Solent supporters' delight, he missed the lay-up and Solent had won the Championship Play-Off by just two points, 70 - 68 (Irish 28, Cunningham 20).
Colin Irish was voted the Most Valuable Player but was the first to acknowledge the importance of the team effort - players, staff and supporters - of all involved.Solent Stars had bounced back from the previous season - when they went without a league win and were relegated - to finish the season as Division Two Champions and Championship Play-Off winners. After one season away from it, Solent were going back into the top national league division.
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