Coach Ball on U18 Women's programme
By Dave Ryan
England's Under 18 Women's coach Michael Ball admits to having mixed emotions about his team's eighth place finish at the European Championship B Division in Timisoara.
"The overall feeling is one of satisfaction in the movement forward this group has taken, but also one of frustration that the team certainly could have been in the semi-finals," said Ball.
It was a considerable improvement on last summer, which saw them finish 12th with only one win, and the first time since 2005 that they reached the quarter-final stage.
England's preparations saw England based in Hungary and Ball believes that his side benefited from it, "The preparation camp really helped the players develop and I think it is something we will look at again," he said.
"The one point loss to The Netherlands just before the tournament was a good indication of the development the players had made from the first warm up game against Hungary. The twice-daily training away from England in a hot environment was ideal and the international games together with the closed-door friendly games against junior men's teams was something that we could not have experienced if we had stayed at home.
"The only negative was the situation with Christina Gaskin. We were able to get her x-rayed and an MRI within a day and she was able to see one of the best knee specialists in the country, but it became apparent that she was at best an outside bet of making the second phase of the tournament. We did try to get a replacement in but it was not possible to make it happen."
It was certainly a tournament of two halves for England as they swept through the first stage with a 4-0 record, but didn't win another game - despite being competitive in all of their second phase games - as they finished with a 4-4 record.
"The preliminary phase of the tournament showed the progress the squad had taken and ending with a 4-0 record," said Ball.
"However we realised that the two toughest teams in our half of the draw were The Netherlands and Belarus. The Netherlands game was the biggest disappointment of the tournament. It was the one game where we did not play for a quarter and left ourselves a very difficult uphill battle in the second half. However the rest of the game the players showed great character and application and played hard. However the second quarter of not playing to our game-plan was too much to come back from.
"The game against Belarus was a different matter. We had already begun to show signs of fatigue in the previous game and the second half was an indication that the players were beginning to struggle physically. When I reflect back on the second half against Belarus and the chances we had to stretch our lead, if we had been able to get some crucial stops, the one regret I have as a coach is that I did not switch up the defence enough. Maybe that might have made a difference - but we still had our opportunities to win the game and to therefore progress into the semi-final game.
"The final two games against Denmark and Finland were all about fatigue. We simply did not have the legs left to play defence for 40 minutes at the level we had set in the first half of the tournament. We also started to miss easy looks and even layups. We tried to adjust by giving players more equal court time, but despite a great effort we were not able to play at the level we had set earlier in the tournament."
Ball still believes there were positives to take from the competition, saying, "Other countries have already invited us to compete against them next year due to our performances and the manner in which the players competed and conducted themselves."
"Also on the plus side, the 1992 born players have now had a good preparation for what will be required next year if they are to make it into the A Division GB Under 20 squad. In particular, Temi Fagbenle, by ending up as the leading rebounder and in the all-star tournament five has proven herself already to be at Division A level."
Fagbenle led the tournament in rebounds (12rpg) and two-point percentage (60%) as well as chalking up a tournament-high seven double-doubles - unsurprisingly earning herself a place in the all-tournament team.
She also led the England team in points with 16 per game, blocks with 2.5 and steals with two per game. Gemma Bullard matched her with two steals per contest.
Ball does believe that England need to make some improvement if they are to make it to the top tier of the European game. "However if we are to achieve Division A status then there are some harsh lessons to learn," he said.
"The two best-conditioned teams were the Netherlands and Romania, who were the finalists. The Netherlands started to change their system a few years ago and they have standards that they set that the players and clubs buy into and help to ensure that their players are physically ready to play eight games in 10 days.
"The Romanian Federation employ a full time trainer who works with all the boys and girls within their junior national teams. She visits all the clubs and works with the coaches to show them what they need to be doing with the players on a daily basis to ensure that each player can progress appropriately.
"Now whether we decide to do it by a centralist approach like Romania or a joined up approach between the national team and the clubs like the Netherlands one thing is certain - we have to make a change.
"We have a superb strength and conditioning trainer, Kayvan Seyri, who has worked with the programme this year and made some progress. Without his support and dedication we would not have been able to go 4-0 playing the style we wanted in the preliminary stage. However, if we want to be able to play at this level all the way through next year's tournament we need to make some further advances.
"The other issues that are normally raised to do with our level of competition in England and the teaching of fundamental skills are still there, but with good preparation the players showed tremendous improvement in the relatively short time together. The single biggest challenge our players had was to be able to make good passing decisions under pressure in the half court. Most of our turnovers came off half court passing situations and issues to do with footwork, balance, pivoting and ball movement.
"Also in the second phase of the competition when the games became more half court based and coaches making adjustments, those teams with strong point guards and players who could create their own shot and play 1v1 became more important. We did a lot of work in teaching players how to utilise ball screens and how to create triangles and passing angles, but most of the situations the guards faced were new to them due to the level of competition compared to England.
"The only way forward, I think in the short term, is to try to give our players more international experience to open their minds to different ways of playing. Hopefully the continued strengthening of the regional system will improve the situation in the long term.
"As for the next step I need to have a debrief with Warwick Cann, to see what we need to improve upon, but the focus switches immediately to the 93/94 born squad. I am going to make an offer to all clubs that we will copy the semi final and final games with notes about the areas we need to improve upon if their players are going to be selected in future and for us to make further progress to Division A.
"I believe that if we can work together in the women's game and we understand what we need to develop, even with our limited player base we can achieve Division A status and develop more players capable of progressing into the GB Under 20 and senior squads."
"Finally I want to thank Lee Ryan, Jacqui Merryweather and Kemi Egan who were simply superb during the tournament. We wanted to set high standards with the players to help them develop a performance approach to the sport and of course that starts with the staff and how they conduct themselves. They were fantastic and I hope they get some rest now - they deserve it."