‘WHERE’S Korumburra?’ is the first question a lot of people ask when they have to travel to the South Gippsland town for the first time to play Melbourne United Victorian Junior Basketball League.
The small town, of about 4100 people, is home to one of a handful of teams which are part of the state-wide elite junior basketball competition – the Melb Utd. VJBL.
The Korumburra team is the only team from South Gippsland that enters the Melb Utd. VJBL and represents the broader region.
Many players travel and hour or even more to get to just to get to Korumburra without even thinking about travelling to Melbourne for games.
Bill Jeffs has been an integral part of the Wildcats Melb Utd. VJBL program and basketball in South Gippsland and knows how important it is.
Currently, he is head coach of the BVC South Gippsland Basketball Academy, coaching director at Korumburra and coached the Wildcats under-16 Melb Utd. VJBL side.
He is also chairperson for Basketball Victoria Country Commission.
“Providing an opportunity to develop such players through the VJBL has always been the Korumburra rationale,” he said.
“It’s so that South Gippsland players do not have to leave the area to participate in a quality competition, and can still fulfil their participation roles with their local basketball associations.”
He knows firsthand the struggle it can be at times to get the program and teams up and running.
Previously Korumburra only entered they thought would have a chance of at least playing division 1.
More recently the club changes their approach with more numbers at tryouts increasing.
He said they were more willing to enter teams at level if they player and family commitment is there.
“We have decided to enter teams where we think players will benefit from participation in the Melb Utd. VJBL,” he said.
“Our previous approach meant teams didn’t get a consistent run at it. They might have played as a top age players and then had to wait two years for another go.”
Historically country teams could not play unless they had finished either first or second in the Country Championships division 1 tournament.
This would give them an invite into the Melb Utd. VJBL, thus even when they had good teams they didn’t automatically make it into the competition.
Fortunately for country sides this has changed.
“Unless you finished one or two in Division 1 Country you weren’t allowed to enter the competition,” he said. “And when you had a team you didn’t necessarily play home games and would be allocated a venue to play at.”
Korumburra and the other players from across South Gippsland soon found different pathways to the competition.
They travelled to Hampton Park and played under their representative banner.
This year the Wildcats have six sides from under-14s through to under-18s. They don’t have under-12 teams, despite interest, due to the travel and commitment needed for early time slots.
Title success has eluded Korumburra, but they have developed some really good players along the way which has always been their intention.
Jeffs said they were pleased with providing opportunities for players from across the region to develop and have had many success stories of players being selected into Basketball Victoria Country teams.
Sam Flanders who is part of the under-18 Vic Country team for the national championships is one of them.
Townsville Fire guard and former Australian Opal Kelly Wilson came through the program. Wilson, who grew up in nearby Leongatha, played for the side when they represented Hampton Park.
Her sister, Bendigo Spirit stalwart Andrea was also part of the program around the same time. Jamie Lee Jeffs, also a member of that same team, until recently played with Korumburra in the Country Basketball League.
She also played at state level and gained a scholarship to college in America.
For Latrobe City Energy’s Thomas Ware basketball was in his blood and it was natural for him to get involved.
Energy is just one of two other clubs in the Gippsland area. Warragul also has sides in the competition and makes the trek to the city every other Friday night.
Ware represented the Energy as a player from under-14s to under-18s and then moved in coaching. He’s currently one of the under-16 coaches and the assistant director of coaching.
Since he started he said the program had become a lot more professional and it was easier for country association’s to be involved.
“It gives the kids the best opportunity to play at the highest level,” he said.
“The program has been running at least 30 years and we’ve spent a lot of time and resources ensuring we have the best program.
Like Korumburra, a lot of players travel from outside of the club’s base in Traralgon to be part of the team. He said despite that players and their parents were massive supporters of the program.
The program also allows for the club to have a pathway from juniors all the way through to Big V.
In recent times, the club has had a number of talented young players go onto bigger and better things.
Jack White, who spent time at Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence, is currently playing with Duke.
Chelsea D’Angelo recently made her debut for Melbourne Boomers in the WNBL.
And it isn’t just the players who get a lot of out it. The Melb Utd. VJBL is the starting point for a lot of coaches.
Ware’s uncle Dave Herbert coached at Latrobe City before moving on and eventually coached in the WNBL.
Both Ware and Jeffs said Basketball Victoria had done a lot to make it easier for sides.
MUVJBL Operations Manager Adrian Campbell said changes were made eight to 10 years ago to make the competition a more Victorian wide competition, instead of just for metro based sides.
Ballarat, Bendigo, Latrobe City, Warragul, Seymour, Shepparton and several Geelong-based teams have sides in the MUVJBL.
He says now every team, whether country or metro is treated the same.
“It’s good for everyone to have the opportunity to play against the best teams. For country teams, they get to play against better competition on a regular basis.
“It gives a pathway.
“Our aim is to have as many teams from the country regions as possible.”
Campbell said they had nearly 1300 teams this season, which is currently in the grading stage.
The top divisions have home and away matches, while some of the lower divisions are based more on location.
“We do have a travel rule that once it’s over a certain amount of kilometres we play in neutral venues.
“We do reimburse those clubs which can’t host home matches for the money they would have earnt.
“In the lower grades we regionalise them to reduce the amount of travel.”
Campbell said a bigger focus on coaching from Basketball Victoria had also helped the country teams be able to compete at this level.