Storm 2023 – Wrapped!

24/12/2023

As the year draws to a close and Christmas is upon us, we wanted to celebrate an unprecedented, magical year in the history of Hemel Storm Basketball Club. In a year featuring 4,034 Storm points, 35 Storm wins and 4 major trophies, there were many memorable moments to look back on, and we’ve picked just a few to remind you of all the fun 2023 brought! 

A bumper January! 

As 2023 arrived, expectations on an unbeaten Storm side were sky-high; no ceilings to the success they could achieve. They entered the year as National Cup Semi Finalists, KitKing Trophy Finalists and 10-0 in NBL Division 1, leaving them top of the New Year standings. Taste buds were tingling at the thought of a tantalising first month of January, and boy did it deliver! First up was a visit from local Division 3 challengers, MK Breakers with Storm looking to book their place in the Cup Final for the first time since their 2018 success. A sold-out StormDome, consisting of supporters from both sides provided a mesmeric atmosphere and the players provided a close, hard-fought match up with tensions often threatening to boil over in what was a frenetic tie, with neither able to fully grasp and control the game, or the crowd! A late slip-up was avoided and Storm emerged 5 point victors, behind 31 from American juggernaut Taylor Johnson, to set up a Manchester date with Derby Trailblazers later in the month. The month, meanwhile, was only just starting and next up was a trip to Bradford which saw an astonishing shooting display from the Storm side, scoring 131 points and hitting a remarkable 67% from the three point line to set them up nicely for their upcoming big day. Storm hit the road to Manchester and again it was that man Taylor Johnson who shone, scoring 41 to carry Storm to a comfortable 21 point win and sparked special scenes as Storm won their first silverware since 2018, captain Tayo Oyefusi hoisting the Trophy aloft in gratitude to the loyal, travelling fans. A scene that may just become familiar to these same fans as the year progressed! However, a week later it was back to business as Storm looked to avoid the next-weekend blues, as they stuttered over the line in a thriller against Loughborough Riders; a buzzer-beating Aaryn Rai alley-oop from a Sam Newman inbound required to squeeze Storm into overtime, which they went onto win. The month was rounded off with a routine victory over Westminster Warriors, but if you thought that was as good as it gets for the year, think again!

Bragging rights secured in local affairs!

February 18th arrived and Storm faced the daunting task of a trip to local rivals Thames Valley Cavaliers in a bid to keep their unbeaten dream alive. Storm entered from the chilly winter weather into a cauldron of heat and fire, and that wasn’t just brought by the intense underground heating system at Uxbridge College! Storm would have been daft to think Robert Banks’ side, led by former man Bode Adeluola, were going to bow down in honour to them and instead faced a fierce, hostile atmosphere where they overcame the elements and an inspired Adeluola, perhaps with a certain point to prove to his former employers. At times, it felt more like a boxing bout than a basketball match, but it was Storm’s own gladiator Aaryn Rai who refused to throw the towel in and claimed 31 points and 17 rebounds, grabbing control of the game when others flapped and Storm escaped from the Cavaliers Den alive and fighting, still without a loss to their name.  A couple of weeks later, Storm faced a towering challenge of a weekend, with a home game against league deputies Derby Trailblazers and a trip to reigning league champions Team Solent Kestrels. A clinical team performance saw them outclass the Blazers to claim a statement first win of the weekend, but it was the trip to the South coast that will live long in the memory. Storm had a target on their back, with every team striving to dethrone them from their untouchable dominance at the top of Division 1, and none more so than the Kestrels who were defending their own title. Armed with standout performer and American import Ricky Madison, Solent were determined to go toe-to-toe with their challengers, and held their own early, resulting in a close game entering the 4th period. Tensions were running extremely high, and a lack of discipline was to be costly for the Kestrels, with starman Madison striking down a banner on his way to an eventual ejection from the contest, after a fierce battle with Storm’s captain Oyefusi. A face soon to become familiar to Storm in Greg Durand stood out for the hosts, clinging to Johnson to deny him the ball on defence and coming up with some clutch plays to keep his side within touching distance throughout the final period, but it wasn’t to be enough as Storm’s willpower and star quality was enough to pull them through. Coming into the final stretch of the season, Storm now felt their heads were just hanging above the water line, seeking out air as they bid to stay unbeaten while others targeted them, but knew they had the confidence and winning habit to go all the way. It was guaranteed to be an exciting ride until the season close for this Storm side and their fans. 

Scenes in Surrey, with KitKing triumph!

1 down, 3 to go was the feeling within the team as they travelled to the home of the BBL’s Surrey Scorchers to face the Worthing Thunder in a bid to claim their second trophy of the campaign. An electric atmosphere was created by arguably the best-two fanbases in the league, with star faces also lining the crowd in an arena fitting of the big occasion to come. Nerves and anticipation were evident, in the players as well as the crowd, and tension was halted as the start was delayed to reposition a tricky hoop; slightly anticlimactic as this heavyweight clash patiently waited to begin. However, one thing that wasn’t halted was the instantaneous high quality basketball on show from two talent-filled sides, and the game was a true advertisement for the standard of the NBL, which now could not be doubted due to the staggering evolution of both clubs. Death, taxes and Taylor Johnson performing in a final were now the only guarantees in life, as he again shone with 32 points, earning him another well-deserved MVP golden ball, but Storm were far from comfortable; Worthing’s suffocating intensity and hustle leaving some edgy faces within the Storm faithful. However, as was the theme of the season Storm rode the waves and arrived on shore with another hard-earned victory and celebrations again began as Storm captain and legend Tayo Oyefusi held aloft a new trophy, confirming him as the most decorated NBL player ever as well as Storm’s domestic trophy double. The shorter trip and earlier arrival back to Hemel was welcomed, allowing the team to cosy up in bed nice and early to recover for the frantic end of the season facing them; only joking!

League win in Newcastle! 

With the playoff final just under a month away, Storm’s unfathomable winning streak had taken them to 27-0 and a trip to Newcastle provided them with a chance of securing the league title. An early tip of 3pm meant an even earlier meet of 7am for the coach journey up, and some grumpy, sleepy faces arrived at the Holiday Inn Hemel Hempstead determined to get the job done, after a few more hours sleep! A fairly routine victory inevitably came for the Storm, but the stakes were clearly high and obstacles were met, as Sam Newman hobbled off with an early dead leg, although he did return to help clinch the win, and there were passionate debates within the squad as their determination for glory became clear. It was Hakeem Sylla’s night, with a 25 point double-double but he was ably supported by Taylor Johnson and the rest of the squad; symbolic of their season’s success, with everyone contributing and fighting for each other. There was no trophy for Tayo to lift on this occasion- instead a home-made banner used to signify their achievement- and after a quick trip to a certain local favourite, the return journey home was slightly more lively than the first. A long day out, but even a tired Aaryn Rai admitted it was worth it as the party rolled to a close and the coach resumed its position at the Holiday Inn. 

Playoff glory! 

7 months, 38 games and a lot of hard work into the 2022/23 season and it all came down to this. Storm’s unbeaten league campaign meant they entered the Playoff stages heavy favourites, and with a home quarter-final against 8th seed Team Solent Kestrels. The Kestrels have a history of causing Storm problems and had beaten them at the very final hurdle in back-to-back campaigns before this year, so Storm could take nothing for granted. However, not even Solent could have predicted the carnage about to unveil in front of them, as Aaryn Rai hit a phenomenal 40 points in a superb performance where he demonstrated his utter domination of the league, and perhaps grabbed the attention of some interested outside spectators. Coupled with his 16 rebounds, Rai ensured there was no contest to be had and marched his side onto a semi-final meeting at the same StormDome venue against the Reading Rockets, a week later. 

Storm were striving for some history, while the Rockets were looking to protect a bit of their own as the only NBL side to go a whole season without a loss on their record and arrived in their numbers to try and thwart the Storm. And they gave it a very good go, scaring Storm right up to the final buzzer as they executed their plan of silencing Rai to perfection. The Rockets travelling fans made themselves known and believed in an upset, but Jermiah Jenkins came up short in his last-gasp attempt to extend the game into overtime and they hit the road back to the south coast deflated; another season over. Storm were far from done though, and they knew they faced an almighty task the next week, up in Manchester once more. 

A blockbuster tie awaited Storm, with the Worthing Thunder looking to repeat their victory over their opponents the last time they met in this fixture, back in 2018. It was 4 losses, no wins in Playoff final history for Hemel Storm, and if they were ever going to change their fate they stood no better chance than this. An end-to-end thriller was billed, but what came was far from that with a scrappy, low-scoring affair between two talented sides that failed to overcome the occasion to produce their best stuff. Ultimately, the name on the trophy was all that mattered and for the first time in their history it was Hemel Storm that the engravers would be copying, as the Thunder again came up short. Fittingly, MVP was awarded to both Rai and Johnson and this truly encapsulated the morals of this Storm squad: selfless, team basketball where the ambitions of each other were put above their own and they were left to look back on an unprecedented, historic unbeaten season of 41-0 and a newly enlarged trophy cabinet, with 4 brand new exhibits. Eyes were damp as they realised it was over, they had done it, and their achievements would surely never be matched. Inevitably, it had to end and people would go their own ways, but for now it was time to cherish their successes and reap the rewards of their truly inspiring season. 

A busy summer! 

There was little rest for the Storm operation, though, and work was already underway for a new season with a summer of change to come. Firstly, Storm played the part of proud father, as Aaryn Rai and Taylor Johnson received BBL contracts at the Cheshire Phoenix and Plymouth Patriots; testament to their hard work and impressive performances at the club as well as the pathway provided for talent to push on by the Storm organisation itself. The departure of these two signalled the end of a squad cycle, and a large overhaul of players and staff was imminent, with Head Coach Dru Spinks bidding farewell after 4 successful years; the ex-player leading the club to 5 finals and 4 major honours in his time at the reins. Next to depart was captain Tayo Oyefusi, who returned from basketball retirement to sign for the Storm 3 years ago and made an instant impact, securing his status as a true club legend by the way he conducted himself, both on and off the court and he left as the most decorated player in NBL history. Other important faces in Nick Allin and Charles Acquah-Davis also moved on, but the summer also marked a groundbreaking moment in the club’s history, as the new Hemel Storm Women’s Team was launched, along with an independent Junior project. These were landmark checkpoints for the future of the club, and will go a long way in securing a sustainable, fruitful operation in the years to come. Now, it was time to get excited, as a new season of thrills, spills and everything in between was hiding around the corner…

Back with a bang! 

A sea of black and orange flooded the StormDome once more, as September rolled around and Team USA pitched up for the annual curtain raiser to the 2023/24 campaign. Fans were treated to an array of talent within the new roster, as they feasted their eyes on some familiar, loved faces in Sam Newman, Hakeem Sylla and American Seth Swalve, but also had their fair share of new ones to admire in Tez Allen, Brayden Inger, Veron Eze and Matt Disu. New Head Coach Mark Clark led the troops, and ambitions and expectations were lofty on the squad, as they bid to back up the previous year and looked to defend their 4 trophies like their lives depended on it! Opening night passed without failure, as Storm blew away a slightly weaker travelling party of US players, and it was straight into KitKing Trophy action with memories of that night in Surrey streaming to the forefront of all our minds. The squad showed their potential and kept the winning run rolling, passing through the group phases unharmed; and this set up a repeat of last year’s cup clash with MK Breakers. Another bumper crowd arrived with hopes of another classic, and this quarter-final delivered with the now Division 2 visitors pushing Storm all the way to the buzzer, missing the opportunity to extend the tie to overtime. New man Inger impressed on the night, and with a semi-final secured it was a job well done in terms of the season start for a new look squad, and attention turned to Division 1 duties. 

Some hurdles…

It was never going to be easy to repeat last season’s achievements, and a staggering run of 46 victories ended at the hands of Loughborough Riders in the first return to league action. Storm re-steadied the ship with back-to-back wins, but there was still some settling for the squad to do as they tried to adjust to new systems and personnel, and this was shown as they came up short in a battle with a strong Derby Trailblazers side that perhaps exemplified the look of a top team this campaign. Storm needed to be better if they had hopes of more silverware this year, and their first hope was ended by the Dragons of Bradford in a KitKing semi-final and soon after their defence of the National Cup was over at the hands of the Worthing Thunder - some revenge for last year’s suffering. There was hope though, in a season with no runaway favourites Storm were still well in the running and if they could gel soon enough, there may be some joy yet for Mark Clark’s new look side. 

Double delight for Christmas!

Heading into their final two games of the year, Storm knew their season so far would revolve around the outcome of their ties against Birmingham and Nottingham. As Birmingham arrived in Hemel, spirits were high as Christmas jumpers lined the bleachers and it was the basketball that provided the good spirit as Storm excelled in cruising to a 32 point win, with pieces of the puzzle sliding seamlessly into place, both on offence and defence. This sent the fans home happy and hopeful of joy in the new year, and a trip to Nottingham had the same effect for the travelling contingency; Storm racing out the blocks in an electric offensive display taking them to an entertaining 6 point win over the Hoods. It was a fitting display to mark the end of an unforgettable year in the history of Hemel Storm and British basketball. There has been fun, nerves, lots of laughs and above all some phenomenal showings from the Storm, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the support and dedication of our amazing fans! 

So as the year comes to a close, all that’s left to say is thank you for your amazing efforts to get behind the boys this year, and have a truly Storming Christmas and a happy, healthy new year where we’ll do it all again! 

Written by Callum Humphrey

Copyright Hemel Storm Basketball