The Storm season review – 2023/24

10/05/2024

As the curtain drew, the last ball was bounced and the final buzzer brought to a close the 2023/24 campaign for good, Hemel Storm were left with memories of another thrilling season, and one more Playoff title to add to the record books. With changes galore, turmoil and setbacks both on and off the court, we reflect on the journey that saw this Storm roster write their own names in Hemel basketball history. 

With great success comes great … transformation? 

After the unprecedented triumphs of the 22/23 season, few would have predicted the challenges facing the club in the off-season. It seems the side’s phenomenal showings brought plenty of attention from the basketball world, and some of it unwanted! League MVP Aaryn Rai was quickly snatched up by Cheshire Phoenix of the BBL after he tore apart Division 1 and Taylor Johnson finally got his chance in the big time after years of impressing in the NBL. Captain Tayo Oyefusi left, content with his title of the most decorated figure in NBL history and long-term coach Dru Spinks decided to move on. So, it was to be a new look Storm side and the question loomed, how would they cope? 

Way to start! 

New man at the helm Mark Clark and his squad started well winning all three of their KitKing group fixtures. New men Brayden Inger and Tez Allen seemed to settle nicely alongside the returning figures of Sam Newman, Seth Swalve and Hakeem Sylla. Local boy Jack Burnell continued his progression through the club’s ranks, being named club captain and the youthful energy brought by Veron Eze and Matt Disu was exciting and dazzled the crowd. Victory over local rivals Essex Rebels, MK Breakers and Thames Valley Cavaliers was an ideal way to begin, setting up the season nicely. 

A rocky road …

It wasn’t to be all joy though, as Storm’s league defence was breached at the first hurdle by Loughborough Riders. The defeat marked the club’s first in over a year and a second was soon to follow at the hands of title favourites, and eventual winners, Derby Trailblazers. Set-backs were to be expected, but after their seeming invincibility it was tough to take, especially as they crashed out of the KitKing Trophy (to Bradford Dragons) and the National Cup (to Worthing Thunder). With five losses before Christmas and two of the four trophies gained last year lost, it would have been easy to press the panic button but it was vital Storm kept a steady head as they looked to overcome turbulent waters. 

Departures and arrivals … 

With two big wins to send Storm into the Christmas break in the festive spirit and a strong start to 2024, it looked as though smooth waters had returned. That was until American fan-favourite Seth Swalve announced he would be heading ‘Down Under’ to pursue a fantastic personal opportunity, which came as a blow to a side who were looking ever-more comfortable in each other’s presence. Swalve had been a key asset, on and off the court for the club, and it left an emotional goodbye. Now, the attention turned to his replacement and he needed no introduction as Taylor Johnson was back to hunt more trophies; his work perhaps not done in Hemel. There was another new man in town, as ex-Leicester Rider Darien Nelson-Henry came aboard. Anticipation was high looking ahead to what this new-look squad could conjure in the remainder of the campaign; silverware still in their sights. 

Win, win and win …

Despite all the off-court activity, Mark Clark’s troops weren’t distracted. Their focus remained fully on returning to winning ways and despite some pre-Christmas disappointment they embarked on an unbelievable run, winning 13 times in a 14 game stretch; the only loss at the hands of Bradford Dragons under some unforeseen circumstances. After a period of squad settlement, everyone now looked comfortable in their roles and Clark’s philosophy was firmly embedded in his men. As a result, Storm produced some fabulous stuff to capture the crowds and excitement was building as the Playoffs lurked in the distance. 

Busy on the treatment table …

While they were controlling the controllables admirably on the court, Storm were left robbed of many of their riches by a seemingly contagious injury bug in most unfortunate circumstances. Brayden Inger saw himself sidelined for a period with a calf tear and after recovering from that, he picked up an ankle ligament injury in the Playoff quarter-final which threatened to end his season early. Hakeem Sylla’s season close was put beyond doubt, however, after an ACL rupture in victory over Derby Trailblazers required surgery. Despite not being present for the post-season adventures, Sylla’s effect on the side was almighty and was well in the running for league MVP with an average of 22 points and 9 rebounds per game ranking right up there with the best. 

Eze makes it look easy …

Within their wonderful winning streak, there was one particular game that will live long in the memory for Storm fans and players alike. Still just about in the hunt for the title, they welcomed table-topping Derby Trailblazers. A blockbuster clash was billed, and boy did it deliver! Storm raced out and against the odds, were controlling the game. The Trailblazers, aided by Sylla’s departure, showed their title credentials and roared back to lead come the closing stretches. Up stepped Veron Eze. 0.9 seconds remained as Newman looked to inbound the ball on the baseline, one-point down. Up went the lob to Eze, who somehow grabbed and released the ball before the buzzer and as it rolled around the rim, time stood still and the StormDome silenced. After what felt like an age, it trickled in and the arena erupted; Storm’s title hopes still intact by the barest of margins.  

Inspired Inger …

In his first season at the club, New-Zealand born Brayden Inger was making quite the impression in Hemel. Fans quickly became accustomed to his lethal long-range shooting and trademark tenacity under the basket and what perhaps meant the most were his passionate celebrations as he made a shot and the emotion poured out. It was evident, then, Inger’s commitment to the cause and despite suffering two setbacks through injury he came back firing both times. His hard work meant that he recovered faster than first feared on each occasion and even boosted Storm’s Playoff final hopes by risking a tender ankle to play 35 minutes in fighting for the trophy. A selfless act, given his departure just a couple of days later to join up with the Southland Sharks in New Zealand and this dedication alongside his on-court splendour was enough for Mark Clark to award him Coaches’ Player of the Season. 

Taking strides …

While the men continued their good work on the floor, there were some huge steps taken elsewhere by the club. The announcement of a new women’s team was overdue and of great encouragement, and they went on to claim an impressive fifth position in the NBL Women’s Division Two. Meanwhile, Michael Darlow’s Division Three men’s side, in partnership with the University of Hertfordshire, continued to grow and had a successful campaign in making the Playoff places. Alongside the introduction of a Junior Coaching platform with ambitions to branch into a full Junior basketball programme, it has been an important year in stabilising and securing the club’s long-term future. 

Post-season experts …

Last year’s Playoff champions, Hemel Storm were somewhat veterans of this stage by now. Despite a depleted squad missing Sylla and Inger, Storm took down the Loughborough Riders and set up a semi final clash with Bradford Dragons. It was always going to be tight and Storm scraped through, dodging a Dragons’ comeback that was nearly complete with a shot for glory on the buzzer, but the manner of victory was irrelevant. The fact was Storm were Playoff finalists, for the fifth time in six goes. Reading Rockets were the opponents and raced out of the blocks, but Storm never let them loose and took the lead in the fourth quarter. Another last gasp effort was swerved and Storm regained their trophy; back-to-back Playoff winners for the first ever time.  

MVP …

In his four years at the club, Sam Newman has become a key cog in the Hemel Storm wheel. His control on the court has perhaps never been noted more than this year, where he stepped up to lead the side and has emerged as a real steady, dependable head. One of few constants from last year’s success, Newman’s work through the transition in building the new look squad was first class and he excelled on the floor also. Claiming the titles of Fans’ Offensive Player and MVP with a remarkable average of 8.1 assists per game, his season was capped off perfectly as he added the title of Playoff Final MVP to his belt.   

More success, more fun and more memories in another winning season for Storm. Chairman Tony Humphrey believes it’s been a year of progression, stating “The club as a whole has again grown this season and that’s been great to see. The addition of our Women’s team, the strength of our University partnership and our Junior academy programme sends strong signals for our future development.” 

As for the Division One men, Humphrey added “The changes and challenges they had to overcome is testament to their hard work and resilience. What a season it’s been and to finish Playoff champions like we did in Manchester was just incredible for everyone involved with the organisation.

“I know our community love what we try and bring to Hemel Hempstead and I thank our fans and sponsors as well as management team and volunteers for their incredible support and dedication”

 

Written by Callum Humphrey
Photo courtesey of Basketball England

 

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