IT'S GOING to be a bit of a baptism of fire tomorrow for the Hawke's Bay franchise team in the National Basketball League.
"We've had no preseason games so it'll be a bit of a shock for us on Sunday," says Indigo Hawks coach Kirstin Daly-Taylor, before they host the Wellington Saints in Napier.
"So are we ready?" Daly-Taylor asks before the 3pm tip-off at the Pettigrew-Green Arena in Taradale that is enticing the Hawks faithful with a gold-coin donation.
"I think we are. We've been training since January 16 and the guys need a game because we've done so much training we need to be tested now."
Paramount to the Hawks' NBL campaign under returning coach Daly-Taylor is the support from the province after a few mediocre seasons in the past few years.
"Hawke's Bay, please, we need you. You're our sixth man so we need the crowd there because Hawks crowds are awesome and they're vocal."
Her goal this season is to win every home game.
"Anything else above that is a bonus," says the former Tall Fern, who found herself at the helm of the franchise team in 2003 when the then-coach, Keith Mair, departed.
The Hawks finished sixth that season and Daly-Taylor, who has served as an assistant in between other seasons, stepped down due to pregnancy at the end of 2003. Australian Shawn Dennis assumed the mantle the following year, before leading the franchise to its only NBL crown in 2006.
The 46-year-old Kirstin-Daly is excited to open their account against the Saints tomorrow.
She feels just the pace of the game against last season's grand finalists will put to bed a few things they've been working on.
Player/coach Kevin Braswell led the Saints to a 116-95 victory in their opening clash in the capital on Thursday night over the James Blond Super City Rangers.
"Our training's been good, though. It's been a simulation of the game but, you know, it's like the nerves.
"Once you're on the anxiety and stress levels change everything in decision-making but I'm really happy."
Daly-Taylor says it was financial decision not to go to the pre-NBL tournament although she went to watch it for her own benefit.
"There were only three teams there," she says, revealing only the Saints, Nelson Giants and Canterbury Rams competed.
"I just went to have a nosey and just to get a feel of where the other teams are at because, obviously, I'm a little rusty as I've been out for three years," she says, relishing sitting in a gym watching basketball at the Blitz all day.
Soaking up what Braswell and Sydney Kings guard Dion Prewster and forward Leon Henry bring to the Saints' equation was vital.
"I had to remind myself, 'Oh yeah, they are that good'," she says, adding veteran Braswell is still a very good player.
Ex-Hawk Prewster impressed her both in Sydney and at The Blitz.
"We'll have to contain him and Leon. We have to defend those three, that's the bottom line."
Daly-Taylor is happy "to go straight up with a punch" against the Saints to have an early idea of where the Hawks fit in.
"Am I pitching training at the right intensity? So I'm ready to take on the best straight away."
Her key goal is mustering the right combinations among "a mature group of men 34-pluses" and a group of 18-year-olds.
"So combining the young with the experienced is going to be my biggest trick."
Co-captain Aidan Daly, Alonzo Burton, Luke Aston, Darryl Jones and co-captain Chris Porter will be her starting five tomorrow.
Matt Te Huna, Mataeus Marsh, Arthur Trousdell and Kareem Johnson will probably be the first off the bench.
"It'll only be for this game because I'm assuming they'll start Tai Wesley and Damien Ekenasio, who are sort of mobile big men who Darryl Jones can match up against well." Her confidence stems from their size.
"That's the bonus. We don't have any Tall Blacks. We have hopeful Tall Blacks and we don't have any current ANBL players," she says after last season's point guard Jarrod Kenny, a Tall Black and champion Perth Wildcat, switched allegiances to the Giants.
It pleases her the Hawks can go 12 or 13 deep.
"Senior legend" Paora Winitana will not play tomorrow and will miss a third of the season through Sunday matches because of his religious beliefs.
"It's just life, so Luke Aston is here, Matt Te Huna is there and Wilfred Dickson's one of our young three and he'll get an opportunity, with Paora unavailable, as a young local boy," she says, emphasising they have Joe Blas and Willie Stinnett, from Guam, waiting in the wings, too.
"The Guam boys are incredibly intense at defence so they certainly like the physicality and like to get out there."
Daly-Taylor says the pair who, as Pacific Islanders, are exempt from the NBL rules of imports, are warming up to her structure.
"I have quite a few systems that you have to abide by so they're just learning how to play with a bit of flair within the system and I think that's what elite athletes can do."
She suspects the unknown quantity element in her squad can be a weapon but she's equally mindful the Hawks "are stacked with experience".
"If we turn up who knows what can happen. If we bring our A game, who knows."
She labels US imports Johnson and Porter "great men".
"They are all-round packages. What impresses me most is our chemistry, we like hanging out together."
Teacher Daly-Taylor, who has signed a five-year contract, is under no illusions her challenge is one of man management.
"Winning is all into chemistry and it's brewing at the moment," she says.
HAWKS (starting five): Aidan Daly, Alonzo Burton, Luke Aston, Darryl Jones and Chris Porter.
Bench: Matt Te Huna, Mataeus Marsh, Arthur Trousdell, Kareem Johnson, Joe Blas, Willie Stinnett, Wilfred Dickson.
Coach: Kirstin Daly-Taylor.
SAINTS (starting five): Torrey Craig, Tai Wesley, Leon Henry, Shea Ili, Chris Jackson.
Coach: Kevin Braswell.
Bench: Jamal Mikaiio, Joe Webb, Dion Prewster, Ben Anthony jnr, Damien Ekenasio, Jordan Mills, Jordan Hunt.