Kristen Veal (Vealy; she/her) knew the 2022-23 WNBL season was going to be about rebuilding the University of Canberra’s Caps’ squad and gaining confidence and experience in her new role.
It was her first year as Head Coach for the UC Capitals after Paul Goriss spent six seasons with the club, winning back-to-back titles, with Vealy part of the coaching team for a few years. Also, a string of the Caps’ key players from the previous season didn’t return, forcing her to recruit a predominantly young squad with the exception of a couple of league veterans.
Despite that, her goals were still to challenge the top teams and get some big wins. Unfortunately, those goals weren’t going to be achieved this season.
The Caps finished bottom of the ladder this season, recording two wins in 21 games – a season performance equal worst to their 1998 and 2015-16 campaigns – but the results don’t paint the full picture.
The UC Capitals’ depth and roster were tested – nearly every single player on the roster spent at least a week on the sideline due to injury. US import Dekeiya Cohen returned home after a handful of games, throwing a spanner in the works, but this opened a spot for Nicole Munger to join the team and thrive. Bench and development players, including Rebecca Pizzey, Lizzy Tonks, Sherrie Calleia, and Chloe Tugliach, stepped up and played more minutes than they were expecting, which greatly benefitted their development at the cost of having less experienced players on the court.
For Coach Veal, while the Bendigo and Adelaide wins are highlights of the season, there’s been plenty of other achievements to celebrate, which she calls ‘winning without winning’.
“The other wins are the way we were playing, the joy with which we were playing, the belief within our team and community, and character development."
“The players’ self-belief of knowing that they can play well and, for the less experienced players, present themselves to the league and professional basketball has been a huge win. Also, the belief from our fanbase – sticking with a team despite a losing season is almost unheard of.”
The Caps’ ‘sixth player’ – the Canberra crowd – showed up to every home game and put on a stellar performance. The Capitals’ first win of the season against the then third-placed Bendigo Spirit felt like they’d just won the league. Rae Burrell sunk a three-pointer with 97 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the crowd erupted with the realisation that the win was without a doubt – and the drought was about to end.
Vealy believes the community impact is driven by the players, enabled by a program the Club has built. After every home game at the National Convention Centre Canberra, the players stay on court for an hour to meet fans – signing autographs, taking photos, and inspiring future ballers.
“We’ve shown that we’re able to impact young people in the community through more than just wins and points on the board – I think that’s the value of a good team, individuals, and organisation,” she says.
Coach Veal doesn’t believe in a wasted season. Even though the Caps didn’t achieve the results they planned, she’s incredibly proud of every single player’s development.
“There are people who walked in the door on day one who are better people and players now. They’re more grown up, more aware and more themselves. Everyone has a story of growth, opportunity or overcoming adversity this year."
Despite Vealy’s positivity towards these ‘other’ wins and her stoic and measured approach, it’s obvious she is still a serious competitor who hates to lose, so this season has surely been tough for the former Capitals player who won three championships with the team.
However, her WNBL peers recognised her fortitude and the Capitals’ improvement over the season, with Vealy’s nomination for WNBL Coach of the Year. While she won’t indulge in the acknowledgement, Coach Veal deserves that recognition.
Players, fans, and the media all look to the head coach for answers when things aren’t going well. There’s an expectation that coaches cannot make mistakes – they’ll typically get the boot if the team is not performing – but this can be unreasonable because they, too, are human.
“I didn’t fully appreciate the expectation on coaches to be ‘perfect’, that making mistakes could lead to loss of confidence and trust,” she says.
“So, I decided to lead through reflection and vulnerability, be okay to make mistakes and not shy away from that.”
A couple hard resets, and honest communication between Vealy and her players, brought them closer and affirmed the players’ confidence in their first-year coach.
Vealy has a strong support network around her, including Carrie Graf (former UC Capitals Head Coach and current UC Director of Sport), Lucille Bailie (UC Capitals General Manager and WNBL Hall of Famer), Joe Gleeson (UC Capitals Operations Manager), Sarah Jennett (CEO of UCX), Angus Bourke (Assistant Coach), Aggie Bradshaw (UCX Communications and Marketing Officer) and more. Paul Goriss even assisted for a game when he returned from the US during the season, offering his tactical knowledge and mentorship.
“I couldn't have asked for a better first year with Graffy [Carrie Graf]. Lucille, Joe, Angus, Sarah, Aggie – they’ve all been so supportive. Sometimes it was their energy, other times a conversation or the right word, that really helped me maintain perspective and stay focused,” she says.
Now with the 2022-23 season over, Vealy will get to enjoy some time off camping with her new pup, Wolf ‘Wolfie’ Martin, before preparing for WNBL Season 2023-24 from UC headquarters. Next season will see some changes to the squad, targeting key pieces to help shift to a win-now approach, rather than long-term development. Canberra local Alex Bunton and young gun Jade Melbourne have confirmed their return to the UC Capitals for next season.
One thing’s guaranteed: their sixth player, the Caps faithful, will be ready to roar for Round 1.
Words by Kailey Tonini, feature image by 5 Foot Photography.
The University of Canberra Capitals would like to thank the Caps family for their support throughout the 22/23 Cygnett WNBL season. From those doing the work on the court, to those working off the court, your dedication and commitment does not go unnoticed. To our volunteers and staff who make our game days possible, thank you. To our fans and members who pack out the stands every home game, thank you. And to our sponsors and major partners who invest in women’s sport to increase visibility, drive professionalism and set the standard for others, thank you.