Sara Blicavs’ rehabilitation following knee reconstruction continued well after return game

P1540801 - CopyTwo and a half years ago on 10 November 2017 Sara Blicavs injured her right knee playing in a WNBL game for the Jayco Rangers against the Adelaide Lightning. Blicavs injury occurred just before half-time and looked serious but turned out to be even worse than first thought with Blicavs actually suffering three injuries to her knee, rupturing the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL), ripping the meniscus root of the bone and fracturing her kneecap. Blicavs required a knee reconstruction and was ruled out for the remainder of the 2017/18 WNBL season.

In her five most recent completed WNBL seasons from 2012/13 to 2016/17 before the knee injury Blicavs played a total of 131 WNBL games to be one of the most durable players in the league and was on an upward trajectory with her scoring average increasing by at least 1.5 points per game in all five seasons during this time.

Throughout her career playing as a forward Blicavs had been a difficult player to match up on due to her combination of athleticism, quick hands, passing ability and size at 189 centimetres. During the 2016/17 season Blicavs expanded her game, turning her three-point shooting into a weapon and finished equal fifth in the 2016/17 WNBL MVP award, her second top 10 finish in a row.

Sara made her debut for the Australian Opals in 2013 and played many tournaments for her country from 2013 to 2017 but had been unable to solidify a place in the team. At the Asia Cup in July 2017 Blicavs had a breakthrough tournament at international level ranking in the top four for the Opals in scoring, rebound and steals.

After her knee reconstruction in November 2017 Blicavs had hoped to miss only nine months of basketball however due to numerous set-backs she ended up missing 13 months in the WNBL, making her return for the Jayco Rangers on 16 December 2018. It took considerable time back playing for Blicavs to regain confidence in her body and as a basketball player. Despite the physical and mental challenges Blicavs focused on matters within her control and earlier this year was named in the Australian Opals 19 player squad for the Tokyo Olympic Games and achieved a long-term goal by signing a training camp contract with WNBA club Phoenix Mercury. The Tokyo Olympics have been postponed to July 2021 and the start date for Phoenix’s training camp is uncertain.

When asked earlier this month ‘What is your greatest accomplishment as an athlete so far in your career?’ Sara responded “Probably coming back from my knee to be honest and coming back to where I was at if not better. To actually come out of that on a positive note I was really rapt in myself because I know how difficult it was for me and people who have done their ACL understand completely. Other than that I don’t have one to date. I am probably not happy with anything I have done yet because I am my harshest critic. I want to go out there and be as good as I can be, I feel as though I am getting there.”

Below I cover 27-year-old Blicavs 216 game WNBL career, representing Australia, her knee injury, and regaining confidence in her body and as a basketball player in more detail.

Early life, family and junior career

Both of Sara’s parents – dad Andris and mum Karen represented Australian national basketball teams, Andris played at three major championships for Australia comprised of the 1976 Olympic Games and the 1974 and 1978 world championships whilst Karen Odgen represented Australia at the 1983 world championships in Brazil and was selected for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics but was forced to withdraw from the team due to a knee injury. Karen was a star on the St Kilda team that won the first two WNBL championships in 1981 and 1982 she won the first two WNBL MVP awards in 1982 and 1983.

Sara Blicavs was born on 15 February 1993 in Sunbury and has two older brothers, Kris and Mark. Kris played several seasons of basketball in the South East Australian Basketball League (SEABL) and has worked as a strength and conditioning coach in the WNBL including for Sara’s team the Southside Flyers in 2019/20. After being an athlete competing in the 3,000 metres steeplechase Mark Blicavs was selected by AFL club Geelong in the 2012 Rookie Draft. Mark has easily exceeded Geelong’s (and everyone elses) expectations and is a two-time best and fairest winner- having won the award in 2015 playing as a midfielder and ruckman and in 2018 playing as a key defender.

In December 2015 Kris got engaged to Sara’s then Dandenong Rangers team-mate Steph Cumming, Kris and Steph were married in March 2017. In an Athlete’s Voice article in November 2017 Sara wrote “I introduced my teammate Steph (Cumming) to Kris, I set them up, so I take all the credit for the fact they’re married now. I’ve never had a sister and she’s never had a sister and we get on so well – we’re both so weird, crazy, insane, that she fits so perfectly with our abnormal family. She’s so much fun and, other than being my sister-in-law, she’s one of my best friends as well, so it’s worked out perfectly.”1 In October 2019 Kris and Steph’s son Arlo was born.

As a junior Sara played basketball and also competed in athletics, a key factor in her preferring basketball over athletics was that she enjoyed being part of a team that worked together to achieve common goals more than competing as an individual in athletics

Sara started playing basketball as a junior for the Sunbury Jets and progressed to play on representative teams for the Melbourne Tigers. Impressive performances for the Tigers earnt her selection in the Vic Metro under 16’s team and Sara went on to play in five consecutive National Championships with Vic Metro from the under 16’s to the under 20’s.

Blicavs made her WNBL debut at 16 years of age for the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in 2009/10. During her three seasons coached by Phil Brown at the AIS Blicavs progressed from averaging 3.6 points, 2.4 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 1.1 steals and 16.4 minutes per game in her debut 2009/10 season to averaging 12.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.8 steals and 29.5 minutes per game in her 21 games during her third WNBL season in 2011/12. Blicavs led the AIS for scoring, assists and steals in 2011/12 and ranked second for rebounds behind Olivia Thompson. With her breakout 2011/12 season Blicavs well and truly stamped herself as one of the best young prospects in the WNBL, ranking equal fifth in the league for steals, 25th for points and rebounds, and 35th for assists.

The AIS team was comprised of players between 15 and 19 years of age which made it difficult to compete with the more experienced and battle hardened players on rival WNBL teams. In a thrilling 68-67 victory for the AIS on 26 November 2011 against Townsville at home in the AIS training hall Blicavs gave a best on court performance, scoring 27 points. Even at that early stage of her career it was a goal of Sara’s to follow in her parents footsteps and represent Australia, commenting ”I always hear coaches talk about my parents and say they were pretty good, and you just want to be like them, or even better. That’s definitely my number one goal to make Opals and if I could get on a camp before the 2016 Olympics, that’d be great.”2

At under-age level Sara represented Australia at two World Championships (now called World Cups) the 2010 Under 17 WC in France and played for the Australian Gems who were coached by current Southside Flyers head coach Cheryl Chambers at the  2011 under 19 World Championships hosted by Chile. Australia didn’t progress past the group stage in 2010 and finished fourth in 2011, losing the bronze medal game to Brazil by three points 67-70. At both tournaments Blicavs ranked in the top five for Australia for points, rebounds and steals per game. In a game against Japan at the Under 17 World Championships Blicavs scored 19 points, had eight rebounds and four assists.

WNBL from 2012/13 to 2014/15

After graduating from the AIS Sara joined the reigning WNBL champions the Jayco Rangers for the 2012/13 season. In her debut game with the Rangers coached by Mark Wright Sara was brilliant, scoring 19 points and taking eight rebounds after starting on the bench.

After one season with the Rangers Sara spent the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons with the Bendigo Spirit. In her first three seasons after graduating from the AIS Blicavs played for a championship contender, during this time Sara’s team-mates included Kathleen MacLeod, Jenna O’Hea and Steph Blicavs (nee Cumming) at the Rangers, followed by Kelsey Griffin, Kristi Harrower, Gabe Richards and Belinda Snell (2014/15 only) at the Spirit. Whilst the calibre of players Blicavs trained and played with during this time assisted with her development it also reduced her playing opportunities.

Early in the 2014/15 season Blicavs moved into Bendigo’s starting line-up and she scored more than 14 points in a game six times in 2014/15 including a hot-streak where she achieved this feat four times in five games from Round 10 to Round 14 including 23 points and six rebounds against Canberra on 23 January, making nine of 16 field goal attempts.

During three seasons from 2012/13 to 2014/15 the aggregate regular season records of the teams Sara played for was 56 wins and 14 losses with the most dominant season during this time being Bendigo’s 22 wins and two losses in 2013/14. Blicavs played in many big games during these three seasons including two Grand Finals for Bendigo against Townsville, a 94-83 victory at home in 2013/14 and a 65-75 loss on the road in 2014/15.

Sara improved from averaging 7.5 points, 4.1, rebounds 0.5 assists, 0.8 steals and 18.6 minutes per game in 2012/13 to averaging 11.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 22.9 minutes per game in 2014/15. During 2014/15 Blicavs ranked fourth at Bendigo for points behind Griffin, Snell and Richards, third for rebounds behind Griffin and Richards, sixth for assists, second for steals, equal third for blocks and fourth for minutes played.

Consecutive top 10 finishes in the WNBL MVP Award in 2015/2016 and 2016/17

After two seasons at Bendigo Blicavs returned to the Dandenong Rangers for the 2015/16 season. In March 2015 Larissa Anderson was named as the Dandenong Rangers WNBL head coach for the 2015/16 season, replacing Mark Wright who held the role for five years.

In her previous five WNBL seasons from 2010/11 to 2014/15 Blicavs had proven that she could make an impact and had averaged between 7.5 and 12.5 points per game in all five seasons but averaged more than 60% (24 minutes) game-time in only season – 29.2 minutes per game in her final season with the AIS in 2011/12. During the 2015/16 season with the Jayco Rangers Blicavs was a permanent starter and elevated her game to another stratosphere, being named in the WNBL’s team of the week three times – Rounds 3, 11 and 13.

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In the Rangers second game of Round 3 against Perth on 25 October Blicavs played a brilliant all-round game, scoring 19 points, took a game-high 14 rebounds, made a game-high six assists and had two steals.

In a six point Round 11 win at home against cross-town rival the Melbourne Boomers on 18 December Blicavs scored a game-high 21 points, making eight of 17 field goals in a team-high 34 minutes and 22 seconds court-time. Blicavs also took seven rebounds and made some crucial free-throws in the final quarter after being fouled whilst using her athleticism to drive to the basket.

In a semi final four point loss to the SEQ Stars at Dandenong Basketball Stadium Blicavs was phenomenal, playing one of the all-time great WNBL finals games, scoring 38 points on 14 of 26 field goals, took a team-high nine rebounds and made an equal team-high four assists. Some of the shots Blicavs made against SEQ under strong defensive pressure were extraordinary, as well as shooting at 54% from the field including making three of her six three-pointers Sara made all seven free-throw attempts.

During the 2015/16 WNBL season forward Blicavs played all 25 games for the Jayco Rangers, averaging 13.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.4 steals and 31.4 minutes per game. Blicavs ranked third at the Rangers for points behind Steph Blicavs and Annalise Pickrel, equal first for rebounds with Pickrel, first for steals and second for minutes played and assists behind Steph. Sara set new career-highs for points, rebounds, and assists in a season. Sara finished 10th in the 2015/16 WNBL MVP Award, polling 56 votes, ranked second at the Jayco Rangers behind Steph who polled 73 votes and finished sixth.

Sara and Steph Blicavs were the only two Rangers players to start every game in 2016/17. Nine Dandenong players played more than 230 minutes each in the regular season, with all nine players being used as a starter at least once in 2016/17. Sara was named in the WNBL Team of the Week four times in 2016/17 – Rounds 4, 9, 10 and 15.

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In a Round 4 Melbourne Cup Eve game in front of 2,332 people at the State Basketball Centre the Rangers struggled in the first quarter, Blicavs scored nine of her team’s s first 13 points and the Boomers led 29-16 at quarter-time. The Rangers trailed 59-61 with four minutes and 49 seconds remaining in the game, Blicavs finished the game strongly to score six points from that point on comprised of a lay-up, jump shot and two free-throws as the Rangers went on a 10-6 run to win 69-67. Sara finished the game with a game-high 28 points shooting at 57% from the field, took six rebounds, made two steals playing the full 40 minutes and was the catalyst for the Dandenong defeating their cross-town rival.

Against the Sydney Uni Flames in Round 9 at Dandenong Basketball Stadium on 3 December Blicavs played a pivotal role in the Rangers recovering from a 43-56 deficit at half-time to record a fight-back 91-83 victory. The Rangers dominated the third term 26-14 led by 10 points from Blicavs who played a brilliant all-round game, scoring 19 points shooting 66% from the field and made three of her four three-pointers, took eight rebounds, made five assists and an equal game-high two steals.

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The Rangers had 15 wins and nine losses during the 2016/17 regular season to finish second at the end of the regular season, the same record as the third placed Perth Lynx and three games behind the Sydney Uni Flames who won the minor premiership. The Jayco Rangers defeated the Perth Lynx two games to one in the semi final series to progress to the Grand Final which had changed to a best of three format in 2015/16. In the Grand Final series against Sydney Sara scored a game-high 25 points and took an equal game-high eight rebounds in the 82-91 loss on the road at Brydens Stadium, making 11 of her 18 field goals for an accuracy of 61% and made three of her five three-pointers. In game 2 at Dandenong Basketball Stadium Sydney outscored the Rangers 20-11 in the third quarter to set up a 75-62 victory and win the Grand Final series two games to nil.

Sara played all 29 games for the Jayco Rangers during 2016/17 including five finals, averaging 15.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.3 steals per game. Sara led the Rangers in rebounds and ranked second at the Rangers for points behind Steph who averaged 17.5 points per game. The biggest development in Sara’s game during the 2016/17 season was her significantly improved three-point shooting. On the eve of the 2016/17 season Blicavs had made a total of 33 three-pointers in her WNBL game career, a tally she exceeded in the 2016/17 season alone, making 34 three-pointers from 87 attempts for an accuracy of 39.1%.

Sara Blicavs finished equal fifth in the 2016/17 WNBL MVP Award on 73 votes, just ahead of Rangers team-mate Steph in seventh place on 70 votes. Very little separated Sara and Steph in the league MVP award and it was even closer in the Rangers MVP Award as the duo couldn’t be split, the tie resulted Sara winning her first MVP Award at a WNBL club and Steph winning the third Rangers MVP Award of her career – having previously won in 2009/10 and 2015/16. Days after the Rangers 2016/17 WNBL Awards Steph married Sara’s oldest brother Kris.

Representing Australia at senior level

At the inaugural FIBA 3X3 Women’s World Championships hosted by Greece in August 2012 Blicavs represented Australia along with Alice Kunek, Tess Madgen and Katie-Rae Ebzery. Australia excelled at the 24 country strong championships to have a record of eight wins and one loss. Losing the semi final to the USA 18-19, Australia won a thrilling bronze medal game against the Ukraine 18-17.

On being selected for an Australian Opals tour of China in June 2013 Sara commented “It was late notice me going into the camp which was last week and I get chosen from then, there were 35 girls participating in that camp and you know it is always exciting being named in an Australian team and it just happened to be the main Opals team, so that’s always good, good to represent your country again, and at such a high level too.”

Blicavs was selected in the Australian Opals team for the Oceania Championships against New Zealand in August 2015 with game one played at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne in a double-header with game 1 of the men’s series played after the women’s game. Rod Laver Arena was a sell-out attracting more than 15,000 people, at the time of tip-off for the Women’s game the crowd had reached 11,500. The Opals won both games to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. In the two game series Blicavs played a total of only 10 minutes, but impressed with her rebounding to take six rebounds in her limited court-time to rank equal fifth for Australia for total rebounds at the Oceania Championships.

The WNBL had a week off between Rounds 13 and 14 of the 2015/16 season to enable the Australian Opals to participate in a test-event in Rio for the Olympic Games. Blicavs narrowly missed out on making the 12 player squad but came into the squad as a late replacement for Tess Madgen who was ruled out due to an ankle injury. In an interview with Dandenong Rangers TV After being named as the Opals injury replacement player for Madgen Sara was asked ‘What does representing the country mean to you?’ Blicavs responded “Everyone says it, it is kind of a cliché to say it is an honour, but when I played at Rod Laver Arena for the Oceania series and it was in Australia in front of Australians in front of my family, I actually knew what that meant and what that felt like, and it was a massive thing and so surreal to me, so I am going to stick with that and say that it is a big honour and so exciting and I get happy when I think my parents are proud.”

Sara attending several Opals Training Camps and played on several overseas tours during 2016 before being cut from the Opals Olympic games squad on 29 June 2016 when it was reduced from 17 players to 15 players.

Sara and her sister in-law Steph were both selected in the Australian Opals team for the 2017 Asia Cup hosted by India in late July, it was the first time since 2013 that Steph had represented the Opals. With Australia’s WNBA players being unavailable Sara was able to play a more prominent role which she capitalised on. In the opening game of the tournament Sara started for the Opals alongside Belinda Snell and Mariana Tolo in the front court with Tessa Lavey and Katie-Rae Ebzery in the backcourt. In the Opals second game of the tournament, a 107-65 victory against the Philippines an S Blicavs led Australia for points, rebounds, assists and steals even though the sisters-in-law both started on the bench. Sara led Australia with eight rebounds, six assists and four steals whilst Steph led the Opals in scoring with 18 points just ahead of Sara with 17 points. Sara made seven of her 13 field goal attempts for an accuracy of 54% and made one of her two three-pointers. The Opals lost a thrilling gold medal match to Japan 73-74, winning the silver medal. Sara played all six games, averaging 9.7 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 20.0 minutes per game, to rank third for the Opals in scoring, fourth in rebounding and first for steals.

Knee reconstruction and rehabilitation

Sara commenced the 2017/18 WNBL season in similar form to her previous two seasons and was named in the Round 3 WNBL Team of the Week after averaging 18 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game in the Rangers victories against the University of Canberra Capitals and the Townsville Fire.

In a Round 6 Friday night game against the Adelaide Lightning at Dandenong Basketball Stadium Sara suffered a serious knee injury just before half-time when she was doing a lay-up. Days later it was confirmed that Sara required a knee reconstruction and would miss the remainder of the season, however Sara had actually suffered three injuries, rupturing the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL), ripped the meniscus root of the bone and fractured her kneecap.

During 2017/18 Sara played nine games for the Dandenong Rangers, averaging 14.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, setting a new career-high for assists per game and an equal career-high for rebounds per game – matching the level she had achieved in 2016/17.

For the 2017/18 WNBL season a new basketball podcast commenced ‘The WNBL Show’ which was co-hosted by Megan Hustwaite and Sara. For the first time since her knee injuries Sara co-hosted the WNBL Show episode 10 on 5 December, 2017. Sara commented on the response to her knee injury “The support of everyone has been absolutely amazing, I was very overwhelmed, it got to the point where I wanted to throw my phone off a cliff because I just had so many people contacting me which was amazing and so many people I never thought would contact me as well did, the gifts that I got, the flowers, that I received. As I much as I am taking this as a positive I would much rather not do my knee and still be playing, so that was kind of shattering for me but it has hit a point where you literally cannot do anything about this so there is no point in trying to be negative in this dull situation.”

On the WNBL Show Sara commented on the chance to work on different aspects of her game during her recovery saying “I think you just get in that routine of constantly training and constantly playing that you never actually have that time to work a little bit harder because you could be too sore for the next game or stuff, so now me being on this nine month break I get the chance now to do all those little things and revamp my game and strengthen my weaknesses, work on my left hand and as much as dad loves this working I’m getting low to the ground. I do see this as me coming back better than ever, it is going to take some time, it will make me mentally stronger because I know there is going to be setbacks and from what I hear you will struggle. At the moment I am trying to straighten my leg, that’s my goal, I have to do that by Friday and it’s pretty tough, it straightens after five minutes and then 10 minutes of resting it is back to its bent self so that’s hard but It’s a good challenge for me and it’s a little adventure in my life.”

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Whilst Sara expected to have set-backs during the rehabilitation process following her knee reconstruction she ended up having far more set-backs throughout the process than what she anticipated. Throughout her rehabilitation Sara had a strong support network including her immediate family. On her parents mum Karen and dad Andris Sara commented “They were super great obviously, they helped me with the exercises and I guess doing them with me too. I think just hearing what they had to say and the fact that they could still play after their knee injuries. They were super supportive, they both played basketball at a high level so they understood my frustrations and it is nice when someone can understand that and know how it feels.”

“You think it is going to be a struggle and I had about eight setbacks in my proper injury rehab kind of process so that was really tough on me mentally but like I said I had a very good support system. I was very lucky where my brother was a strength and conditioning coach, a personal trainer and he has done a whole injury prevention. As soon as I did my ACL he took himself to an ACL course so as soon as I could start back in the gym Kris was there to help me out with all of that stuff and he was phenomenal for me and then I guess like I said I just had good people around me to help me get through it.”

After her knee reconstruction Sara had hoped that she would only miss nine months of basketball, however with the numerous set-backs she ended up missing 13 months, making her WNBL return in a Jayco Rangers home game against the Bendigo Spirit in Round 10 on Sunday 16 December. In the days before her return game Sara commented to Fairfax Media journalist Roy Ward “I’ve done three team sessions for about an hour – so I’m definitely a rust bucket but no excuses, I know I will always bring effort. I’ve been training by myself for a while now and then the last three weeks has been a rush. My knee hasn’t been rushed back, it has responded really well, it has just been a rush to get me back out on the basketball court. I’ve done one five-minute full-court game so we’re just going to throw me in there and see how I go.”3

As a preventative measure Sara didn’t play back to back games in the following rounds, instead playing one game per round. Playing limited minutes off the bench for the Jayco Rangers during her six games in the 2018/19 season, Sara averaged 4.7 points and 3.0 rebounds per game. Whilst Sara had successfully returned after her knee reconstruction the rehabilitation process continued long after her return game as she gradually gained confidence in her body and her game.

From 2013 to 2017 Sara represented the Geelong Supercats in five consecutive South East Australian Basketball League (SEABL) seasons, playing in the club’s 2017 championship and being named in the All-SEABL team in 2015 and 2017, she also led the league in scoring in 2017.

After missing the 2018 season due to her knee injury Blicavs returned to the Geelong Supercats for the 2019 season, averaging 16.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.9 steals per game. Blicavs formed a powerful front-court trio with Ezi Magbegor and Zitina Aokuso. In the NBL1 Grand Final at the State Basketball Centre Geelong were defeated by the Kilsyth Cobras 76-86.

Selection in the Australian Opals 2019 Asia Cup team

Looking back on being selected in the Australian Opals team for the 2019 Asia Cup in September Blicavs commented “To know that the coaching staff had faith in me, that was really good, but to be honest I didn’t feel prepared in myself and my body, I didn’t feel that I was ready to play at an international level, I had only played like 20 games of NBL1, to get then thrown in to the Asia Cup, where you are playing against the quickest Asians and the quickest style of play. So yeah I don’t think I was too ready for that but in saying that I think it was good to me mentally to get back in to it and I think there comes a point of time where you need to just get chucked into this stuff so you can’t use your knee as an excuse anymore, you know what I mean. It had been six months since I had been back and it was time for me to actually lock in and start doing stuff and I think that was good for me.”

At the 2019 Asia Cup held in Bangalore, India from September 24 to 29 Sara played all six games for the Opals, averaging 6.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 14.9 minutes per game. The fast paced style of play at the tournament troubled Australia. After a loss to China 69-70 in the group stage Australia faced Japan in a semi-final and were defeated 64-76. There was a sizeable gap from Australia, Japan and China to the remaining five teams at the tournament. Australia easily won the bronze medal game against Korea 98-62.

2019/20 WNBL season with the Southside Flyers

In July 2019 the Dandenong Rangers WNBL license was transferred from the Dandenong Basketball Association to Gerry Ryan who in 1975 founded Jayco who were the naming rights sponsor of the Dandenong Rangers WNBL team from 1997 to 2019. The Southside Flyers play their home games at Dandenong Stadium and respect the history of the Dandenong Rangers. After the announcement of the license transfer and the establishment of the Southside Flyers Ryan commented “The Southside name reflects our commitment to create a team with support from the beachside suburbs of Melbourne and the Mornington Peninsula through to the Dandenong Ranges, Gippsland and beyond. The Flyers hopefully will describe the style of play and success of the team within the WNBL. Our vision is to significantly broaden the support for the new team and to get the whole basketball community involved. The name Southside Flyers reflects this vision.”4

On Gerry Ryan taking over the license from the Dandenong Basketball Association and the rebranding of WNBL club the Dandenong Rangers to the Southside Flyers Sara commented to The Pick and Roll after Round 1 of the 2019/20 WNBL season “It’s been a huge change, with Gerry Ryan having taken ownership of the club. He’s not just invested in us, but he’s very supportive of women’s sport and the whole set up feels very professional. The stadium has been redone, it’s absolutely unreal. I think teal is very pretty!”5

Six players on the Southside Flyers 2019/20 roster played for the Jayco Rangers in 2018/19 –  Blicavs, Bec Cole, Kiera Rowe, Rebecca Pizzey, Taylah Giliam and Stephanie Reid whilst another four had played for the Jayco Rangers previously – Jenna O’Hea, Leilani Mitchell, Aimie Clydesdale and Louella Tomlinson. Two members of the Flyers 2019/20 core rotation that hadn’t represented the Rangers in the WNBL previously were Anneli Maley who played for the Dandenong Rangers SEABL team in 2017 and American import centre Mercedes Russell who has played two seasons in the WNBA. Australian Opals captain O’Hea was appointed as Southside Flyers captain for their inaugural season.

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Cheryl Chambers was appointed as the inaugural head coach of the Southside Flyers. Chambers is currently an assistant coach of the Australian Opals and had two stints as a WNBL head coach previously – with the Bulleen (now Melbourne) Boomers for eight seasons from 2001/02 to 2008/09 and with the Sydney Uni Flames for three seasons from 2016/17 to 2018/19 with the Flames winning the WNBL Championship in 2016/17 after defeating Dandenong 2-0 in the Grand Final series.

Looking back on heading into the WNBL season after representing the Australian Opals at the Asia Cup in September Sara commented “I felt a little bit sharper coming back from that and I felt like If I could play at that level then I could manage the WNBL, like I said before the more games I played during WNBL the better I became, the more confident and honestly the more comfortable I became and I started to feel like back to myself, so yeah, it was very handy.”

The Southside Flyers played their inaugural WNBL game against the Townsville Fire at Dandenong Basketball Stadium on 12 October, the Flyers regular starting line-up throughout the 2019/20 season was Leilani Mitchell and Bec Cole in the backcourt along with Blicavs, Jenna O’Hea and Mercedes Russell in the front-court.

Blicavs was named in the WNBL’s Round 3 Team of the Week for her performance in the eight point victory against Bendigo in Traralgon when she was exceptional from long-range, making five of her eight three-pointers for an accuracy of 62.5% from behind the arc. Blicavs finished the game with a game-high 23 points and made two steals – ranked second for the game behind O’Hea with four.

The following round the Jayco Southside Flyers hosted the Bendigo Spirit again, this time at their regular home court at Dandenong Basketball Stadium, Blicavs was quiet from a scoring perspective until the final quarter, only having five points at the final change when the Flyers led 63-61. Blicavs started the final quarter in perfect fashion with a steal and a lay-up in the first 10 seconds and went on to dominate the final quarter, scoring a total of 16 points for the term to gain the ascendancy for the Flyers who recorded their fifth straight victory, 93-80. Sara finished the game with 21 points – ranked second for the game behind team-mate Cole with 23 points.

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In late November and early December Blicavs registered three double-doubles in four games including 20 points and 10 rebounds in a 91-83 Flyers victory on the road against Adelaide at Titanium Security Arena on Sunday evening 1 December in her 200th WNBL game. Reaching the significant milestone at 26 years of age despite missing 13 months of basketball due to her knee injury. The only player on Southside’s roster that has played more WNBL games than Sara is the Flyers captain O’Hea who started the 2019/20 season on 255 games and added another 18 games to her tally during the season.

Earlier this month Sara was asked “How long did it take for the confidence in your body and as a basketball player to return once you started playing again?” Sara responded “Yeah, that is a really good question, actually. I found the hardest part in my rehab was once I was six months back playing, because I didn’t feel like myself, my brain wasn’t switched on to my body and vice-versa. My skills were behind, I wasn’t as sharp, I wasn’t as quick and I think that was the hardest part mentally because I was starting to think that maybe I won’t come back and play at a high level like I want to and be the kind of player that I want to be. So yeah, last year was really tough for me, I came back at the start of last year, then I played NBL1 for Geelong, felt really rusty and it probably wasn’t until maybe halfway through the recent WNBL season that I actually started feeling good again. Started feeling like my decision making was correct and my touch was a lot better and I started actually reading plays rather than trying to think ahead. Yeah for me, that was the hardest part of my rehab and mentally I found it really tough but thank god I am out of that rut because I feel like I can actually play basketball again.”

Against the Melbourne Boomers at the State Basketball Centre in Round 13 on Sunday 12 January the Flyers trailed by four points with one minute and 25 seconds remaining but were able to bridge the gap, send the game to overtime and win the game 75-73 in the first period of overtime, however the victory came at a cost. Flyers captain O’Hea broke her wrist when she and Boomers forward Ezi Magbegor met solidly when they both dove after a loose-ball. O’Hea played out the game but was expected to miss 10 to 12 weeks which would cause her to miss the Opals Olympic Qualifying Tournament in February and the remainder of the WNBL season.

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In the final round of the WNBL regular season, Round 16, Blicavs scored a team-high 18 points for the Flyers in a 78-61 victory against the Sydney Uni Flames from just 19 minutes and 52 seconds court-time. In a brilliant all-round game Sara shot the ball extremely proficiently, making all eight field goal attempts and both free-throw attempts, she also had eight rebounds and six assists to set game-highs in both categories and had two steals. Sara was named the WNBL Player of the Week for Round 16, earning her second Team of the Week selection for the season, having previously been named in Round 3. Coach Cheryl Chambers gave the bench players extensive minutes in the second half against Sydney to manage the workload of her starters. The day after the final round victory Chambers, Blicavs and Mitchell all departed Melbourne and travelled to France for Australian Opals duties at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

The Southside Flyers recorded 17 wins and four losses during the 2019/20 season to finish on top of the ladder, two wins ahead of the University of Canberra Capitals and Melbourne Boomers who finished second and third respectively, followed by the Adelaide Lightning in fourth position on 12 wins. The four teams that missed the finals all recorded between five and eight wins being Perth (8 wins), Sydney (7) Bendigo (5) and Townsville (5).

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The Flyers won their semi final series against Adelaide two games to nil, winning each game by three points, 68-65 at home in game 1 and 82-79 on the road in game 2. All five Flyers starters scored at least 12 points in game 2 with Clydesdale scoring a season high 18 points.

The Southside Flyers Grand Final opponent was the University of Canberra Capitals who defeated the Melbourne Boomers 2-1 in their semi final series with the home side winning each game. Canberra who won the regular season split against Southside 2-1 with the away side winning all three games. The Capitals easily won regular season games at Dandenong Stadium 91-72 and 98-74 in Rounds 5 and 14 respectively whilst the Southside Flyers defeated the Capitals 70-65 at the National Convention Centre in Round 9.

Southside captain O’Hea returned from injury for the Grand Final series and after starting game one on the bench returned to the starting line-up for game 2. Very little separated the Flyers and the Capitals during the Grand Final series, the Flyers held the lead in both games of the Grand Final series at a stage in the last four minutes, however in the dying stages the Capitals were more composed and shot the ball more efficiently to win Game 1 82-80 at Dandenong Stadium and Game 2 71-68 at the AIS Arena on 4 March.

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Blicavs played all 25 games for the Southside Flyers in 2019/20, averaging 13.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.1 steals and 31.3 minutes per game. Sara ranked second at the Flyers for rebounds per game behind Russell, third for minutes per game and fifth for scoring and steals per game. Of the players that played at least five games Blicavs ranked 19th in the WNBL for points per game, 12th for rebounds and 25th for steals. Sara ranked 12th in the league for total three-pointers made with 33 – one less than her tally in 2016/17.

FIBA Olympic Qualifying tournament and being named in Opals Olympic Games squad

Sara was named in the initial 19 player squad for the Australian Opals Pre-Olympic Qualifying Tournament held in Malaysia during November 2019 but wasn’t named in the final 12 player team. Sara also narrowly missed out on being selected in the Australian Opals 12 player team for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in France which was named on 10 January 2020. Two days later Opals captain  O’Hea broke her wrist in an overtime victory against the Boomers as mentioned above and Blicavs was brought into the Australian team as an injury replacement player for her Southside teammate.

The Opals were defeated on 6 February by host nation France in their opening game of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament 63-72. Australia won their next two games 100-74 against Puerto Rico and 86-72 against Brazil to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Sara played all three games for the Opals at the tournament and was ranked sixth for the Opals for rebounds and assists per game.

On 2 March 2020 Sara was included in a 19 player squad for the 2020 Olympic Games – being joined in the squad by three Southside Flyers team-mates – O’Hea, Mitchell and Cole, however the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games have been postponed due to the coranavirus and will commence on 23 July, 2021.

On 26 March this year it was announced that Sydney would host the 2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup for five on five basketball from 23 September to 3 October with 12 teams competing in the tournament. On the impact Sydney hosting the 2022 World Cup will have on women’s basketball in Australia Sara commented “It is going to be huge, I am so rapt that we are managing to host it. Basketball is such a popular sport, there are a lot of girls that play it but they never get the opportunity to see the best in action. You know they can watch the WNBL, but I mean to actually see the Opals, it is very rare that we ever have games in Australia and to actually host the World Cup, host the USA, a powerhouse, host all the European teams, you know there are girls in Australia who idolise these kind of players and get to see them in action. I think Australia will get behind it, I think we’ll actually get some attention in the media now about it and about the Opals which is nice. To have it on home soil, that is just amazing.”

Training camp contract with Phoenix Mercury

On 10 April Sara achieved a long-term goal by signing a training camp contract with WNBA club Phoenix Mercury however the start date for the camp is uncertain due to social distancing measures being in place in response to the coraonavirus. Earlier this month Sara commented “It is hard because I am very excited to go and I feel very ready and confident to go, when you feel like that you are in a good mind-space and that is when you need to go and do these things. So to be ready to go and not actually know when it is going to happen is frustrating. We are just getting weekly up-dates, we do a weekly zoom call with Phoenix Mercury and the whole team and they are just updating us on everything.”

The Phoenix Mercury have a strong Australian contingent including head coach Sandy Brondello, assistant coach Penny Taylor and Sara’s Australian Opals teammate Alanna Smith. Sara commented “You could say it (Phoenix) is probably the closest one (WNBA club) to home which is nice. I get on well with Sandy and I respect her and obviously her being an Australian I know her husband Olaf well. It is quite nice, I have already been to Phoenix twice too so I am quite comfortable with the city, I know the city well and I know all the good food spots you could say. It does make it a little easier I guess if you are quite comfortable with the position that you are in. I like that they are quite family oriented. They are very Australian which is nice.”

Impact of social distancing measures

Sara had signed to play with the Geelong Supercats in the 2020 NBL1 South and was going to be playing alongside her sister-in-law Steph who had her son Arlo in October 2019 and couldn’t play in the 2019/20 WNBL season. Due to the social distancing measure in place as a result of the coronavirus the 2020 NBL1 season for all three leagues were cancelled before they started.

On the impact of social distancing measures on her training Sara commented “It’s OK, I am lucky enough, I still have access to a stadium so I am still managing to train everyday, train differently, I think  it is a really good time for people to get creative, I have been running a lot more, gymming, the weight room is a little bit different to me and I am just trying new things, yeah, trying to keep myself entertained, it has been good for my brain, it has been challenging, it is not too bad. I am very much looking forward to restrictions easing off though, I think everyone will be.”

“I have been working on ball-handling, coming off on-balls, decision making and skills during this iso-time which has been really fun for me. Just making sure I am mastering the three point shot, I feel like that has become one of my weapons now and I am getting a lot better at it so if I can just make sure I am clutch at the three-point line. Possibly getting rebounds, working on that and my post-game, I have got to be able to post smaller guards and yeah like I said really refining my skills and making sure I am great at everything rather than good at everything.”

Reflecting on the past two and a half years and looking forward

When asked earlier this month “What have you learnt about yourself and other people during the past two and a half years?” Sara replied “That is a big question. Probably that I am more resilient than I thought I was (laughs), again going back to the injury, it was just like the best thing for me and I think during that time you know my mindset changed completely. I am very much a whatever happens happens kind of person now, and a silver lining for everything. I think too, you know being around more elite athletes I just think that mentally even the best players go through lapses and go through struggles where they are down on confidence. I guess when you think of the elite athletes that are out there, you idolise them you never think that they would go through stuff like that, so to actually see that everyone is human. I think that is a really cool thing, it might make you more empathetic.”

On her goals for the future Sara commented “Well obviously everyone’s goal is to make the Australian team, you know make the Olympics, I kind of want to solidify my spot in the Australian team though I don’t want to be on the outskirts, I want to actually be part of the team and contribute in a solid way. Like you can have all the goals of I want to make WNBA and I want to play in that for a while and all that stuff but I just want to make sure that I am happy with how I am going and making sure that I am I guess as good as I can be you know, not leaving anything out there and not always wondering if I did this maybe that could have been me. I feel like with my knee’s now especially I may only have five years left in my career until I can’t walk anymore (laughs), just to know if that is my time-frame I may as well give it as much as I can.”

By Dean Andrews

Twitter – @DeanAndrews7777

1 https://www.athletesvoice.com.au/sara-blicavs-play-till-somebody-cries/

2 http://www.smh.com.au/sport/basketball/blicavs-just-the-shot-to-give-ais-a-muchneeded-boost-20111126-1v13o.html

3 https://www.smh.com.au/sport/basketball/rust-bucket-blicavs-expects-good-time-not-a-long-time-20181215-p50mhz.html

4 http://wnbl.basketball/blog/news/southside-flyers-a-new-look-team-in-the-wnbl/

5 https://pickandroll.com.au/sara-blicavs-flying-into-the-new-wnbl-season/

 

 

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