Erkenwald's annual pilgramage to Caister took place over the weekend of 25/26/27 April and despite drafting in 24 year old Colin Dockrell from the mean streets of Wickford via East Durham, Spain and University College Worcester, in a sure sign of the passing of time, the ageing Erks lost a game in the pool stages for the first time ever and then departed the competition in the first knockout round to Police Sport UK, after leading by 11 at halftime.
The Erks squad fielded Four National League players, Dave Churches of Colchester, Mark Denchfield and Keith Pringle of Eastside Eagles and Dockrell who played this season at the University of Worcester. The squad was augmented by the fouling power of Coach Declan McCusker, the technical foul potential of Shakey Rose (rumours of his retirement were exaggerated), the Dave Bromfield like defensive prowess of Gareth Sims and the high pick setting machine Richard "Chims" Williams, now even slower and more reluctant to roll off that pick after ACL surgery.
Dockrell was making his Erks debut, although as a former Colchester junior he was well known to one of the Erks many EBL journeymen Terence Rose. Indeed Shakey greeted Colin warmly and had started to reminisce about the old days at Colchester when Shakes used to take him to school in the post, before he even realised that (a) Colin was playing for us and (b) taking most of his minutes.
NB: The wisdom of exposing Shakey to young impressionable basketball players must be questioned, as despite attending 2 separate basketball academies and having an array of post moves not seen in Erkenwald colours since the departure of Paul Hayden*, the abiding memories of Colin's Caister debut for the Erks will be a strong tilt at Shakey's Caister travelling calls record, a theatrical dive and scream after being poked in the eye against Ware and fouling out of the crucial game in about 10 minutes court time.
*Admittedly the majority of Colin's post moves start away from the basket and move in rather than Paul's which started under the basket and ended with a fade-away from the top of the key.
Anyway, on to the basketball....
Despite a number of close scares, including a free throw shot victory after a 3 pointer on the buzzer (from Bob Monkhouse impersonator Jimmy Campbell) and a number of come from behind rallies, the Erks had a flawless fifteen year record in the group stages of Caister. However for the past few years it has only seemed a matter of time until the Erks vulnerability in Saturday morning games after a night on the beer was finally exposed, and this year the omens weren't good when they drew a young, athletic side from North London called The KBS in the first game of the day. The omens weren't good when the first few minutes revealed the KBS to be talented, as well as young and athletic, and the final straw was revealed soon afterwards when it became apparent that 6'9 Erks centre Dave Churches had been hypnotised in the night (presumably whilst urinating on the kitchen floor of his caravan) and instructed not to set foot in the key on offense.
Even slowed by age and alcohol and with their guards forced to trip over a lumbering oaf as they moved the ball around the top of the zone, the Erks twice extended the lead to 8/9 points as the smaller KBS team were powerless to deal with the 6'8 Dockrell in the paint. However a succession of travelling calls, some which even looked as though they may have been valid, allowed the KBS some respite and they took advantage by draining pretty much everything from beyond the arc in the second half. With the game tied in the final minute, they nailed a three and when the Erks responded in kind, the same player nailed another one, which proved one shot too far, dropping the Erks to a 52-49 defeat, in what appeared to this author (from the end of the bench in between trips to the toilet to throw up), to be a high quality game. That opinion was endorsed by the KBS's strong showing in the remainder of the tournament as they subsequently had a run to the Semi-Finals, where presumably they lost to the first team prepared to put two big men in the paint against their one player over 6'4.....
That game was supposed to have been the Erks second of the Festival, however the first was awarded as a 15-0 forfeit as Southend Players didn't make it to Waveney in time to play at 7pm on Friday night. Various rumours circulated as to why they couldn't make it, from traffic jams, to couldn't be bothered to leave the pub...however as Southend spent most of the weekend in fancy dress and performing dance moves after every missed free throw, the chances of the game ending with either the Erks putting on the 1-1-1-1-1 or Declan chinning someone were approximately 50-50, so the forfeit may have been the best conclusion all round. Especially as the Players featured a special guest in ex-Erk and former Club debtor Steve Herd at small (6'1ish) forward.
At 1-1 the Erks really needed a good old fashioned blow out to settle the nerves and set up a pool decider and fortunately Chiltern obliged. With the Bucks side seemingly on 4 points for about 10 minutes, the Erks shooters couldn't miss, with Gareth and Mark both hitting three first half treys. At 35-4 with Keith Pringle already sitting with his boots off resting a rolled ankle, the game turned into a scrappy affair in which the Erks ultimately cruised to a 62-22 victory. Indeed the victory was so comfortable that Shakey actually gave up an open shot to provide an assist to Chims under the basket. The highlights of the game were two superb assists for dunks from the Erks Coach Declan McCusker, the first found a Chiltern player minding his own business at the halfway line before being presented with a clear run in for a jam, the second (and superior) pass was delayed just long enough for Mark Denchfield to (erroneously) think that he had a chance of getting back to catch the Chiltern player, thereby meaning that he got dunked on.
The final group game was shaping up to be a tough affair as Ware were also sitting at 2-1 and looked to be a well disciplined side. They were lead by Leopards forward Matt Eames, a former team-mate of Dave Churches in his Ware Div 1 days. Churches opinion of Eames was that he was "a strong player in the post", an assessment that was presumably gleaned as Churches brushed against him as he set a pick down low before sprinting up to his usual spot at the top of the three point arc.
With qualification on the line, the game was nip and tuck all the way. Dockerell's post moves were largely repelled by the collapsing zone of the Hertfordshire side, so Keith Pringle took the game to them with pull-up jump shots and some driving and dishing. The star of the show for the Erks however was Mark Denchfield, who had found his range in the previous blow-out and punished Ware every time they left him open. As the game drew to a conclusion, the Erks were clinging onto a 2 point lead, when the play of the game was made. Dockrell had the ball stripped at the free throw line, and the pass had already been made to the Ware wing man who was streaking in for a lay up when the big man belied his tender years with a veteran play, as he fell to the floor screaming after he was apparently poked in the eye.
The referee immediately stopped play and the layup was waved off and such were the anguished screams emitted, there was scarcely a person in the hall who didn't fear for Colin's eyesight. At which point our hero got to his feet and ran back on defense, before quickly remembering to rub his eye and look a bit dazed...
The Erks still couldn't shake Ware however despite Dave Churches first trip to the line of the tournament as he accidentally found himself close to the hoop and was fouled as he searched his memory bank for the last time he made a post move. Churches did hit a huge shot to give the Erks a 3 point lead with less than a minute to go, however Ware responded straight away with a long 2. Inside the last 20 seconds with the Erks still one point up, Coach McCusker called time and set out the Erks strategy for the final possession. To paraphrase, it was "we don't need to take another shot and don't give the ball to Shakey". Needless to say 7 seconds later Shakes was at the line after being fouled as he showed for the ball as if his life depended on it and then made a move to the basket. Fortunately, the foul was also called unsportsmanlike, so although Shakey made 1 of 2, the Erks got the ball back and this time managed to run the clock out despite a floated inbounds pass that nearly gave Declan a heart attack.
Onwards to the knockout stages then, although the defeat to KBS meant that the Erks wouldn't receive a bye and would therefore be on court early on Sunday morning against one of the group winners. That turned out to be the Police Sport UK team, who contrary to the other two Police teams in the competition, actually contained some policemen.
The first half of the knockout game was the Mark Denchfield show, or rather about 2 minutes of the first half was, as the Erks' Martin Fowler lookalike scored on the break and then knocked down treys on three successive possessions, showing that he was none the worse for wear for an extensive night's hair stroking. This gave the Erks a 10 point advantage, but in a surprising case of the Police's northern coach not being as stupid as he looked, the Police immediately went to a box and one and Denchfield managed one more shot in the entire game. The Erks were still looking good at half time however as their big men were controlling the boards and protecting the hoop and the Police shooters were struggling to get open looks and they went in with an eleven point lead, the only cloud on the horizon being a second foul for Dockrell just before the half.
Unfortunately the cloud became a full blown storm just minutes into the half, as Dockrell picked up a third foul with an over the back offensive rebound attempt straight out of the Shakey playbook and then almost immediately was blown for a 4th and final foul as he was slow to move his feet on defense. That left the Erks nursing a 10 point lead with their shooter shackled, a reception crew waiting for Keith Pringle every time he ventured into the paint, Church "posting up" his man 6 feet outside the key and Declan acting as a facilitator for Shakey who was actively encouraged to shoot the ball.
It wasn't only this author who saw trouble ahead in that scenario and predictably the game ended in tears as the Police whittled away at the Erks lead and finally nosed ahead inside the final two minutes. The Erks did respond with a big three to level the scores, but two further Police baskets were a bridge too far and the Erks eventually bowed out with a 6 point defeat.
Whilst the general consensus in the aftermath was that the Erks were a scorer short of a contending team, the fact remained that had the KBS not hit a purple patch, the Erks would have won their group and had a very comfortable draw through to the semi-finals. Also had Dockrell stayed in the game, the Erks would arguably have beaten the Police and then moved on to a quarter-final against the very beatable Lasers and then a semi-final against an exhausted Colchester team. Either way, the eventual winners Met Police were a class apart and they breezed past the Police Sport team in the final with a second half full of fast break layups and dunks.
As ever, there's always next year!