Young Guns in the WNBL – Maddison Rocci

FOR many of Australia’s veteran basketball players, some have gone their entire careers without ever laying their hands on the coveted Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) Championship trophy, or at least not until late into their careers. But for Maddison Rocci, the 22-year-old is coming off her second straight title with the University of Canberra Capitals in what is her third season.

While Rocci understands the privilege she has had playing alongside some of the best imports and veteran Australian talents in the league, it has not stopped the Melbournian from playing a pivotal role in each one of her titles, whether it be her scoring ability, her role on the floor or her dedication to the game.

“I have been very lucky in my three WNBL seasons to have such great role models,” Rocci explained. “I’ve had Nat Hurst, Leilani Mitchell, Kelly Wilson, Olivia Epoupa, Kia Nurse, Kelsey Griffin and Marianna Tolo and it’s been super important to my development and just my confidence has grown ever since I’ve been able to play with these individuals.”

Growing up in the Victorian suburb of Werribee, Rocci’s first sporting interest was not shooting hoops, nor even her second, as dancing and netball were the two activities that piqued her interest prior to basketball.

“The switch came from watching my older brother [Kristian] play at the Werribee Devils,” Rocci said. “Seeing what he could do out there on the court, made me want to go and try that sport.”

It was at the age of 11 that Rocci started playing at a domestic level, and soon after that, would try out for the Devils’ representative program in the Under 12’s age bracket in the Victorian Junior Basketball League (VJBL).

Gradually rising through the ranks, Rocci would be picked up by the Centre of Excellence program in Canberra, where she put on impressive displays of basketball in a season of one of the NBL1’s predecessors, the South East Australia Basketball League (SEABL).

Following this, the Canberra Capitals made their move, signing the 168cm-tall shooting guard to her rookie contract for the 2017/18 season. Despite the side not making the top four that season, Rocci and her squad blew the rest of the competition out of the water on their home floor in their 2018/19 campaign, as the Caps led the league in the standings with a record of 16-5, which ultimately would lead them to a 2-1 grand final series win against the Adelaide Lightning, the first for Rocci.

The 2019/20 season for Rocci proved to be her breakout stint, as increased minutes and point production for the guard, would allow her statistics to shine, further validating how effective Rocci’s game has become to this point.

Accumulating numerous starting roles for the Capitals, Rocci’s time of play would average close to 27 minutes per game, providing an imperative amount of support to Paul Goriss’ stars such as Nurse, Epoupa and Tolo. This would also include a season-high 19-point performance against the Southside Flyers and former teammate Leilani Mitchell mid-way through January.

After her 21 regular season contests, Rocci would accumulate decent numbers at the two-guard position, averaging nine points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. In addition, she would also remain consistent in her shooting, maintaining a 36 per cent clip from beyond the arc and a 40 per cent field goal percentage to boot.

For Rocci though, the biggest takeaway from last season, was her quest to find out what piece she was in the Capitals’ puzzle.

“The main thing that I learnt from last season was basically I had to find my feet and find my role,” Rocci said. “Being a starter in the WNBL was a really huge goal of mine, but what really helped me was just talking to more veteran players and leaders of the club. When I first arrived at the club, I wasn’t sure on what my role was in this team, but people like Paul [Goriss] and Kia helped me find my feet.”

Following a hard-fought semi-final series against the Melbourne Boomers, the Capitals had their eyes on a back-to-back title. The only thing standing in their way, the Southside Flyers and their impenetrable defence.

With Game One a slugfest from the get-go, it was going to be an absolute mission to steal away a win on Southside’s home-court.

Earning herself a modest eight-point, two rebound and three assist stat line, Rocci and her side would pull out an incredible two-point win to go up on the series 1-0, now knowing they could win back-to-back titles on their home floor.

With the Flyers up against the wall, an explosive opening quarter put Southside ahead by eight after 10 minutes. But, a dominant third quarter by the Caps, would earn them a two-point lead heading into the last quarter. However, reigning MVP and Rocci’s close personal friend, Kia Nurse, drilled a three-pointer with just seconds left to put the nail in the coffin on a series that would go down in Capitals history.

“It was super overwhelming!” Rocci said. “I tried really hard not to have a little tear in my eye when I was celebrating with the girls after, and it just shows the hard work and dedication that our team put in each day to get to that end goal that we set at the start of the season. I honestly can’t believe that I’m a back-to-back WNBL champion and that’s obviously super special and a memory that I will cherish forever.”

After a side wins back-to-back championships in any sport, the obvious thought for the future is the same for many. Can there be a three-peat?

For Rocci, that thought is very much off in the distance and the youngster has no doubts that the goal will be an objective come the start of next season.

“Whenever anyone asks that question you always think that you want to have that three-peat in your mind,” Rocci said. “Obviously that’s going to be a goal of ours, winning a championship going into any WNBL season, so we just gotta work hard each day and be there for each other.”

While the possibility for a three-peat remains a chance, the WNBL’s decision to possibly exclude imports from the upcoming season due to COVID-19 restrictions, would severely hinder the Capitals’ hopes, as Suzy Batkovic Award winner, Kia Nurse, may not be eligible for the 2020/21 season if the exclusion is to take effect.

“Imports are super special, and I’ve had the privilege to work alongside some super special ones in Canberra,” said Rocci. “Kia was one of the best imports I’ve ever played with and she’s really helped me develop my game. She wasn’t one of those imports that was arrogant, and it wasn’t all about herself, she was always willing to give back to the team, that’s the same with Olivia Epoupa.”

“They set a different standard,” Rocci added. “To train alongside someone who’s coming from overseas is pretty special, because when you go to play over there, you know what it’s going to be like. I enjoy playing with imports in the WNBL, so I can’t wait for them to come back after COVID has disappeared.”

After it was announced that next season will take place from the 20th of November, Rocci now has a clearer picture of what her offseason looks like, but up to this point has been training with the NBL1’s Southern District Spartans Head Coach Aja Parham-Ammar, focusing on things like ball-handling, shooting and some strength work at a warehouse up in Brisbane, where she currently resides.

Later down the track, Rocci will look to continue developing her defensive skills such as lateral movement and one-on-one play, as well as maintaining her three-point shot that has become a major weapon for her so far in her career.

Next season will be Rocci’s fourth with the Capitals, as she looks for her third title in as many years.

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