Spirit development players embrace their WNBL opportunity

EAGER: WNBL development players Kasey Burton and Isabella Stratford, pictured in the indigenous round jerseys they will wear against the Canberra Capitals on Friday night, believe there are bright things to come for the Bendigo Spirit in the 2019-20 season. Picture: DARREN HOWE
EAGER: WNBL development players Kasey Burton and Isabella Stratford, pictured in the indigenous round jerseys they will wear against the Canberra Capitals on Friday night, believe there are bright things to come for the Bendigo Spirit in the 2019-20 season. Picture: DARREN HOWE

EAGER: WNBL development players Kasey Burton and Isabella Stratford, pictured in the indigenous round jerseys they will wear against the Canberra Capitals tonight, believe there are bright things to come for the Bendigo Spirit in the 2019-20 season. Picture: DARREN HOWE

PLAYING time has been scarce for Isabella Stratford and Kasey Burton, but the WNBL development players are making every minute count during their time with the Bendigo Spirit.

The prodigiously talented pair have been diligently soaking up every ounce of knowledge they can, working alongside players of the ilk of league greats Kelly Wilson and Gabe Richards, and Opals star Tessa Lavey.

Stratford, a former South Australian state under-18 and under-16 representative, says it's been an amazing and, at times, surreal experience.

"I guess you could say I am just living it up, making the most of every chance that comes my way, and I'm super thankful to (coach) Tracy (York) and (assistant coach) Mark (Alabakov) for giving me the opportunity to come and train with the high-calibre players we have," she said.

"When Tracy gave me the call-up, I looked at the roster and was in awe that I was going to get to come to training against players like Kelly Wilson, Gabe Richards and Tessa Lavey every day. It's been awesome.

"Influence wise, Tessa has been an amazing role model - the way she holds herself on the court, and her leadership is amazing.

"The advice she gives off the court and they way she conducts herself around the team is exceptional. I am just soaking up everything she says, as I do with Kelly and Gabe with their experience."

Basketball is in the blood for 18-year-old Stratford, whose father Daniel was an accomplished guard for the Mount Gambier Pioneers in the former SEABL/ABL competition in the 90s and early 2000s, as was her uncle Craig, who is the current head coach of the Victorian Metro under-18 boys side.

The teenager can distinctly recall the moment she first set foot on a WNBL court.

"It was in Melbourne against the Boomers and Tracy was looking at me funny during the third quarter, eventually she just said 'Go Bella'," Stratford said.

"So I ran on and it was just so quick and fast, up against Opals girls and WNBA girls.

"But my favourite game was in Adelaide against the Lightning, obviously being from SA, and getting to score my first points.

"It was a free throw ... I missed the first one but got the second one, it was a bit of a relief."

The 174cm guard has so far featured in three games this season.

While stoked to have made her way onto a WNBL list so early in her development (she was signed as a 17-year-old), the experience will be brief for Stratford, who has signed to play college ball with California State University, Fullerton for the next four years.

"It's been great getting my foot in the door, so hopefully when I am done with ther American stuff I can come back and have another crack at it," she said.

It's been a longer route to Bendigo for Burton, who spent three years as development player for the Melbourne Boomers, before taking a season off in 2018-19.

Kasey Burton and Isabella Stratford. Picture: DARREN HOWE

Kasey Burton and Isabella Stratford. Picture: DARREN HOWE

A strong NBL1 season in 2019 with the Melbourne Tigers, where she averaged 9.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game as a starter, ultimately convinced coach York the 23-year-old shooting guard still had much to offer.

Afforded opportunities in four of the last six games, Burton is focused on consolidating her spot in the WNBL.

"Basketball is a life and you have to see where it takes you - if it doesn't turn out there's always other options," she said.

"Personally, I am being given a few opportunities now to get on the court, it's up to me to show what I've got and create some of my own opportunities.

"But definitely the long-term goal is to stay in this league and also to have a good NBL1 season.

"I'll be back with the Tigers and (coach) Kristi Harrower ... she's fantastic and I can't wait to get back on board."

Burton, a former Victorian Country under-18 and under-16 representative, praised the role Spirit stalwarts Wilson and Richards had played in her development this season.

"They are the most experienced players I have ever played with; their knowledge of the game is exceptional," she said.

"Gabe was injured last week (against Townsville), but the knowledge she was passing on to us girls on the bench was fantastic.

"It's comforting knowing they are there to help us improve our game."

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This story Spirit development players embrace their WNBL opportunity first appeared on Bendigo Advertiser.