Solent Stars 1985/86 Season

Back row: Steve Fitzsimons, Pete Heselgrave, Mark Thornber, TJ Robinson, Bryan Skeoch, Ron Whitehead, Mike Griffiths, Derek Etherden
Front row: Mike Gray, Roy Lewis, Paul Philp, David Brown, Ken Nottage, Dave Gwyther

The signs for the season did not look good when, in August, Mark Saiers decided - at 35 - that he would retire from the game. Plagued by a knee injury, Mark had soldiered on to the end of the previous season. His legacy for Solent was five successful years including a League title, a National Championship, three Cup Final trophies and the award in 1982 as British Player of the Year.

Speculation was rife about who would play for Solent in the coming season even after the first pre-season friendly, against Kentucky Wesleyan, at Fleming Park in early September.

Tony Watson, who had not played for Solent since walking out in February when there had been financial difficulties, was the top scorer for Solent in the game, which they lost 92 - 93. Solent were without Mike Griffiths and new signing Ken Nottage (touring with the England team) and Bryan Skeoch had only arrived in the country shortly before the game.

6' 7" American Ron Whitehead joined Solent for the next fixture, a friendly at Derby. Ron had been the initial Solent target to replace Mark Saiers. However, Whitehead had jetted off to Argentina believing his agent had secured him a contract there. This had not happened so Whitehead fired his agent and approached Solent to ask if he could still sign for them. At Derby he scored 25 points in Solent's 85 - 82 win.

Still short of practice, Solent went to Plymouth and won their last pre-season game 88 - 65.

The squad for the season - under coach Steve Fitzsimons - was TJ Robinson and Ron Whitehead (Americans), Bryan Skeoch, Mike Griffiths, Ken Nottage, Paul Smith, Tony Watson, Dave Brown, Mike Gray, Pete Heselgrave, Mark Thornber, Dave Wilson and Ian Finch.

Ron Whitehead

Second Division Colchester were the first opponents for a competitive game at Fleming Park in the newly named Prudential Cup. They were no match for Solent who took a 50 - 18 halftime lead to kill off the game. TJ Robinson was top scorer with 24 points in the 97 - 47 win for Solent.

For the first league game of the season, Solent travelled to the Mountbatten Centre, Portsmouth, to play the newly revamped Portsmouth team. Portsmouth had signed 14 professional players prior to the start of the season with coach Danny Palmer being given a very generous budget by owner John Deacon. The team had already been declared as favourites to win the league title before a ball was bounced on court in the season. Solent were no match on the night for this powerful team and lost 68 - 83. Good defence by Solent at the start of the game was not capitalised upon because of poor shooting at the other end. Perversely, when the game was already lost Solent seemed to find their form and ended strongly. Coach Fitzsimons blamed a lack of fitness and match practice for Solent's performance.

His criticism of the team after that defeat was nothing, however, to that rendered two days later when Solent went to Crystal Palace and lost 98 - 110. "The worst performance that any team I have coached has given me" was the stark assessment of the coach after the game. Once again a late rally, after TJ Robinson had reached five fouls, reduced the deficit to a reasonable one. But it had been noticeable that Robinson and Whitehead did not see eye to eye both on and off court. Whitehead with 42 points was the Solent top scorer.

Bryan Skeoch

With Tony Watson having missed two matches because of a back injury, Solent had to think of a replacement and so invited Roy Lewis to attend their first home league fixture of the season against Birmingham. Bryan Skeoch played a major part in subduing the Birmingham attack in the early part of the game to provide a platform on which Solent could build an eight-point halftime lead. With TJ Robinson again fouling out early after a poor game, it was left to the rest of the squad to hold on to their lead and win their first home league game 100 - 88 (Whitehead 33).

A mid-week match followed for Solent Stars when they played the home leg of the first round of the Korac Cup against Spirale, Liege. But was it, Spirale, Liege? On the night of the match a Belgian reporter covering the match insisted that it was not Spirale that Solent were playing but B.O.G. Andenne - an amalgamation of two teams over the summer and for whom this was their first competitive match! In any event, the game was lacklustre and played in front of a pitifully small crowd. Ron Whitehead was ineligible for the game and it was left to TJ Robinson (23) to lead the scoring. But Solent were outdone (71 - 85) by the three point shots from the visitors.

TJ Robinson scored the same number of points (23) at Manchester a few days later but once again Solent's loss of concentration at a vital time meant that Manchester were able to steal and hold on to a slender lead which meant that Solent's defeat (81 - 82) was their third in four league games.

David Brown

A quick exit from the Korac Cup followed the following week when Solent lost to Spirale, Liege in the away leg (82 - 93). Steve Fitzsimons was unable to travel because of work commitments. By losing, Solent were spared an expensive trip to Greece for the next round.

Off court, Solent made headlines by announcing that Southampton Football Club had acquired a majority interest in Solent Stars Limited and that Solent would move their offices to The Dell. Director Roger Nash reported that "we did not want cash, but rather the credibility that we are here to stay." A long term plan involving a new playing venue was mooted, but Roger Nash was at pains to point out that Solent Stars had no plans to abandon Fleming Park.

All the news emanating from the Solent camp meant that the home game played on Friday evening against recently promoted Tyneside rather took second place. Solent won 113 - 89 in another eminently forgettable match. One unusual feature was that of Tyneside's Tony Hanson scoring two points after he had been fouled out with five fouls and also picking up another foul in that time. Mike Griffiths' palmed 'own goal' was responsible for the two points (given to the opposing captain) whilst a comment from the bench to the referees brought him his sixth foul!

With Tony Watson still injured Solent re-signed Roy Lewis who had left after three seasons to try and find a better contract elsewhere. Roy's home baptism was in the Prudential Cup tie against Bracknell. However, prior to that he took part in Solent's inglorious defeat away at the hands of rock-bottom Uxbridge (75 - 76).

TJ Robinson

A packed house, comprising an equal share of travelling Bracknell fans, provided the right atmosphere for the Cup game. A fast and furious half had ended with the teams all square on 51 points. Both Robinson and Skeoch then reached four fouls early in the second half. Coach Fitzsimons brought Roy Lewis into the fray and was handsomely repaid when Lewis bagged 21 second half points to help Solent to a 111 - 97 win (Whitehead 31).

A similar situation presented itself at the next home game when Worthing brought many supporters for this league game at Fleming Park. Mistakes and poor free throw shooting cost Solent dear at vital times in the game, but with the scores level with 11 seconds remaining it was Worthing's Jerry Jenkins who went to the free throw line for two shots. Coach Steve Fitzsimons called a timeout, partly to increase the pressure on Jenkins. This was successful as Jenkins missed both and the game ended 82 all. The overtime period swung both ways. Ken Nottage missed from the line when Solent were trailing by one, but Mike Griffiths picked up the rebound and scored to put Solent into the lead. Nottage scored again and Solent kept the ball on their next possession until a three point shot right on the buzzer gave Solent a winning scoreline of 97 - 91.

Buoyed by these two wins, Solent then faced another lowly placed team, Bolton and Bury. After Solent's poor performance against Uxbridge the team could not afford a similar mistake. However, coach Steve Fitzsimons was still forced to call a timeout early in the game as Solent slipped to a 0 - 8 situation. Eventually, Solent won 101 - 94, but it was a close run thing.

Having lost their last two away matches in the league by one point, it seemed only justice that Solent could finally win an away game - and by one point! Solent's Carlsberg league game at Leicester was played in front of 2,500 spectators and the result 95 - 94 lifted Solent to fifth in the league table.

Back row: Mark Thornber, Ron Whitehead, Paul Philp, Pete Heslegrave, TJ Robinson, Mike Gray, Bryan Skeoch
Front row: Ken Nottage, Mike Griffiths, Dave Brown

Back home, Solent's next opponents were Manchester United, fresh from an 82 point drubbing earlier in the week against Barcelona. A very poor first half failed to live up to expectations and was marred by some erratic officiating that unsettled both teams. However, when it came down to the wire in the last minute, Solent's option to take possession of the ball - instead of the free shots allowed - cost them dear. Ken Nottage put up a poor shot with 6 seconds remaining - with the scores level - and Manchester's Tom Brown gained possession and scored at the Solent end (with a bonus free shot for being fouled). Solent lost 76 - 79 and TJ Robinson top-scored with 20 points.

The quarter-final of the Prudential Cup was Solent's next home game. Sunderland, the opponents, had disposed of Leicester in the previous round and came with high hopes. Those hopes were dashed by a first-half spell when Solent scored 14 points without reply, with Whitehead and Lewis scoring six each of these. This helped Solent to win 106 - 83. It was then announced that because of a new TV deal, the format of the semi-finals would be changed from the two-legged format to a one-off game. The venue would be Aston Villa Leisure Centre in Birmingham. The wisdom of this deal was brought into question when the four semi-finalists were Kingston, Portsmouth, Worthing and Solent - all from the south coast.

A three week lay-off then ensued for the Solent team before, at the end of November, they played their next home league game when the opponents were - Sunderland! The game followed a similar pattern to the earlier cup game with Solent this time winning 84 - 70. One interesting aspect in this game was the return of Tony Watson to the court after a back operation. Tony scored 4 points in a limited appearance in the game. However, this was to be Watson's last game, having been advised by his doctor that permanent damage could result if he continued to play.

Ron Whitehead

Solent then travelled to Bracknell to play the team that had never beaten them. Sam Stiller's three point shooting was a major contributory factor to Solent losing that proud record - and the match (88 - 90). Solent had led by 10 points early in the second half before Stiller was successful with several three pointers. For Solent, Whitehead scored 30 points.

Solent Stars' ability to fritter away winning opportunities had appeared to have reached its nadir at Bracknell. However, that was nothing to the situation at the following game, away to Crystal Palace. This time they had a ten-point cushion with just four minutes to go. Subsequently they were able to add only five more points as Crystal Palace, inspired by Bubba Jennings, steamrollered them aside to give Solent another defeat (101 - 106).

At home a few days later, all the signs were there again as Solent were 98 - 99 down when they were given possession of the ball in their game against Hemel Hempstead. With just a few seconds remaining Ken Nottage and Ron Whitehead contrived to lose possession and Hemel scored the decisive basket that sent Solent to a 98 - 101 defeat. The team met behind closed doors after the match.

Three consecutive league defeats were hardly what Solent wanted prior to the Prudential Cup semi-final at Aston Villa against Worthing. However, with Steve Fitzsimons never having coached a losing Solent cup game, the team responded by establishing an 18-point advantage just five minutes before the break. This was whittled away to 8 points at the interval and 4 points shortly after. Both teams ran into foul trouble in the second half. Solent supporters - who easily outnumbered the other three teams followers - were hoping that Solent's ability to self destruct would not be brought into play. So it proved with a competent display from Whitehead, Lewis, Skeoch, Nottage and Griffiths. Solent won 101 - 83 (Whitehead 35) to take them to the Royal Albert Hall in January. The surprise of the semi-finals was the defeat of previously unbeaten Portsmouth by Kingston.

Mark Thornber

Four days later Solent travelled to Worthing for a league game and lost 84 - 108. Whereas the Cup performance had been full of discipline and purpose, this was yet another dismal effort. Ron Whitehead once again led the scoring with 24 points.

Over Christmas, Solent finished third in a four team tournament at Bracknell. After losing 78 - 112 to Montelibano Sao Paulo, Brazil, Solent beat the hosts Bracknell 93 - 92 in the third/fourth place play-off.

Sunderland were Solent's next league opponents and they recorded their third win over them this season (95 - 84). Bracknell were then beaten again by Solent (113 - 104) in the league but Solent's trip to Birmingham ended in defeat (79 - 83). As well as the defeat, there was an ankle injury to Bryan Skeoch that threatened to keep him out of Solent's next game - just two days later - the Prudential Cup Final at the Royal Albert Hall.

It was decided to risk Skeoch for the Final, but in the event it did not matter since Solent Stars were convincingly outplayed by surprise finalists Kingston. Only TJ Robinson performed on the night in scoring a third of Solent's points (28) as they crashed to an 82 - 113 defeat, the second largest margin in the cup's eight year history. Ron Whitehead was strangely subdued on the night and only amassed 14 points, one less than Bryan Skeoch, who had played virtually on one leg throughout.

Action from the Prudential Cup final at the Royal Albert Hall

Returning to Fleming Park for the next game, against Manchester Giants, Solent still seemed under shock from their cup defeat. An inept performance in the first half, which included some unseemly on-court bickering between TJ Robinson, Ken Nottage and Ron Whitehead saw Solent fall 43 - 54 behind just before halftime. However, a second half revival by Solent - aided by fifth fouls for Manchester's Mark Scott and David Lloyd - saw them overhaul the Manchester scoreline and hang on to win 94 - 91. Ken Nottage (17) was in inspirational form in the half whilst Roy Lewis was top scorer with 27 points.

Nine days after the humiliation at the Albert Hall, Solent were once again up against Kingston, this time in a home league game in front of a capacity crowd. With much pride at stake, Solent were dismayed when Kingston cantered into an early lead before an inspired Solent team took charge of the game and with less than six minutes remaining they held a six point lead. Controversy had surrounded an earlier incident-packed first half as Roy Lewis was called for a charging foul that had involved Dan Davis of Kingston holding onto the ring and swatting Lewis' shot away. Instead of awarding a basket and a technical foul against Davis, the referee called the disputed charge. With four Solent players in foul trouble, they were unable to hold the late Kingston surge and lost 98 - 105. Pride, however, had been restored. Successful free throw shooting would have made a difference also. Solent went to the line 19 times and only scored on nine occasions. In contrast, Kingston made 23 of their 26 attempts. Once again, TJ Robinson led Solent's scoring with 19 points, a total equalled by Ron Whitehead on the night.

There followed a trip to Tyneside for a bruising encounter against the locals that resulted in an 84 - 70 win for Solent. Bryan Skeoch was the Solent player of the match and the win lifted Solent to eighth place in the league with a possible Wembley Championship play-off in sight.

The next game was a mid-week home game against Portsmouth. This first official meeting between the teams at Eastleigh brought out flocks of supporters and there were long queues for admission. Portsmouth, who had set an early pace, were rocked when a collision between Mike Griffiths and Portsmouth recent import Jose Slaughter resulted in the latter being stretchered off and dispatched to the hospital. However, Portsmouth soon recovered their nerve and established a comfortable lead that few would have thought assailable. Roy Lewis had other ideas and his 12 points in six minutes, following a series of dazzling dribbles, helped Solent to level the scores (42 all) at halftime. Portsmouth still had another card up their sleeve in the form of Colin Irish. He had been off-court during most of the time Roy Lewis had influenced the scoring. On his return he scored with several three point shots and also took many rebounds. His personal tally of 44 points in the end proved the difference between Portsmouth's ability to keep ahead against the valiant efforts of Solent. Roy Lewis scored 31 points and was named man-of-the match as Solent went down 83 - 94.

Bryan Skeoch

With five league games remaining Solent embarked on a road trip for matches against Hemel Hempstead and bottom-placed Bolton. Ironically, both games resulted in the same scoreline. However, one was a defeat to offset another victory. The first match, at Hemel, resulted in the disappointing defeat (98 - 105) despite Solent having an eight point lead at one point in the second half. After a training session that left three Solent players injured prior to the second away game, Solent needed all their nerve to overcome basement dwellers Bolton. Bryan Skeoch once again had a good game to ensure that Solent withstood the late pressure from Bolton to win by seven points (105 - 98).

So it was that Solent approached their next game, against Leicester, knowing that a victory would lift them to sixth position whilst defeat would mean almost certainly that they would finish outside the play-off positions. Despite the incentive, however, Solent could not raise their game on the night in front of their home supporters. Only a few points separated the teams at halftime (43 - 47) but Solent were not winning the rebounds and were playing for individual rather that team pride. Slowly Leicester edged ahead and Solent trailed at the end (95 - 106).

Next was an amazing mid-week game at Kingston which was one for the statisticians rather than for the supporters. Solent - who had to win the game or else end the season with no playoff games - scored their highest total of the season 111 points. Unfortunately for them, Kingston ran in 161 points, the highest total of the season. This victory for Kingston came after posting 146 points against Bracknell just three days earlier. Coach Fitzsimons berated his squad for lack of application when at one stage they had levelled the scores after trailing by a big margin. TJ Robinson had shocked the club just hours before the game by resigning as club administrator and spent most of the game on the bench.

Just one more game remained in the league and Solent put up a brave fight before losing to Manchester United (75 - 104) with Bryan Skeoch again having an outstanding game.

Ken Nottage

The inauguration of the British Masters Championship meant that Solent would still have games to play in a new competition that initially shadowed the play-off format with teams playing home and away, with a third game if necessary.

Solent made an inauspicious start to the Masters Championship when they lost their opening game away to Worthing (83 - 85). With Bryan Skeoch on four fouls by halftime and TJ Robinson reduced in mobility with a leg injury, Solent were unable to hold onto their slender lead in the last few minutes. Controversy raged when the referee penalised coach Steve Fitzsimons when he tried to speak to him. This was in stark contrast to an incident when the Worthing coach had grabbed the ball out of the same referee's hand to make a point and gone unpenalised. The points from the free throws levelled the scores with just seconds to go and Jerry Jenkins was able to sink a late winner for Worthing.

The return leg at Fleming Park saw Solent play brilliant basketball to score 70 points in the first half of the game. Ron Whitehead, in particular, was in scintillating form and he was ably supported by Bryan Skeoch and TJ Robinson. Solent were unable to sustain the pace in the second half and Worthing - having scored 56 first half points themselves - came back into the game. Solent's lead was reduced to three points (82 - 79) with just ten minutes remaining. In an exciting climax to the game, Solent held their nerve and won 110 - 104 with Ron Whitehead contributing 39 points.

So, two nights later the teams were present on the Fleming Park court again to play the deciding tie. Once again Solent made the early pace and seemed on course for a comfortable victory, but Worthing had other ideas and came back in the second half to lead 71 - 74 after at one time trailing by 17 points. A determined Solent took up the challenge despite TJ Robinson on four fouls and Mike Griffiths being penalised for allegedly pushing an official, and forged ahead. Seven unanswered points at the end of the game saw them home (97 - 92).

Mike Griffiths

The next round for Solent was a visit to Uxbridge. Solent started badly under stand-in coach Paul Philp and quickly fell behind. After seven minutes Ron Whitehead, Solent's Player of the Year, was dismissed for striking out at an Uxbridge player who was trying to wrest the ball from him following a disputed out-of-bounds call. Philp, who had hoped not to have to play whilst taking the role of coach, was forced to introduce himself into the game. With Solent trailing by 26 points, his inspiration proved invaluable and Solent went on to win 85 - 81.

Ron Whitehead was certainly fired up for the return leg. A series of slam dunks demonstrated that he meant business and he earned a rebuke from the referee who was concerned with the ability of the basket to take the continued punishment. Coach Paul Philp (Steve Fitzsimons was at home on duty with his expectant wife awaiting their second child) was able to play all ten players and they rewarded him by all getting on the scoresheet. No deciding game was necessary as Solent strode to a 102 - 81 win.

The third round of the Masters Championship pitched Solent against their nemesis, Kingston. The Kingston team had just four days before been crowned new national champions at the Wembley Play-Offs. Having already inflicted league and cup defeats on Solent, Kingston were favourites to take the tie with two straight wins. The format of the championship had now changed to aggregate scores over two ties. Solent, however, had other ideas and roared into an 11 - 0 lead straight from the start. With all the players contributing, Solent established a 75 - 53 point lead at halftime. Bryan Skeoch's basket early in the second half meant that Solent had a 30-point lead. Kingston's Steve Bontrager then landed five three pointers in a spell where he scored 24 points to make the difference just nine points. But in keeping with the unpredictable nature of the game, it was Solent, largely thanks to Mike Griffiths, who reasserted control and eventually ran out deserved winners of a memorable clash 130 - 122.

Despite Solent's tremendous first-leg victory over Kingston, there was to be no happy ending to their third round British Masters Championship tie. In Good Friday's return leg Kingston triumphed 104 - 117 to squeeze through to the next round on a 234 - 239 aggregate. With barely a minute remaining the sides were still level on aggregate but as Solent - lacking the injured Roy Lewis - began to tire, Kingston grabbed the all-important advantage to bring Solent's competitive season to an end.

(Division 1)
Played Won Lost For Against Difference Points
1 Manchester United 28 25 3 2772 2464 +308 50
2 Kingston 28 24 4 3193 2902 +291 48
3 Portsmouth FC 28 22 6 2721 2513 +208 44
4 Manchester Giants 28 18 10 2565 2456 +109 36
5 Crystal Palace 28 17 11 3237 3050 +187 33*
6 Birmingham Bullets 28 15 13 2759 2720 +39 30
7 Brunel Uxbridge 28 14 14 2586 2629 -43 28
8 Leicester 28 14 14 2907 2957 -50 28
9 Hemel & Watford 28 13 15 2864 2790 +74 26
10 Solent Stars 28 12 16 2595 2568 +27 24
11 Bracknell 28 11 17 2907 2985 -78 22
12 Sunderland 28 8 20 2734 2967 -233 16
13 Bolton & Bury 28 3 25 2678 3018 -340 6
14 Tyneside 28 2 26 2542 2884 -342 4
* One point deducted

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