Ipswich Tomcats are on the prowl for glory

WHEN the Ipswich Tomcats open their 2012-13 season with the visit of Division One side Hemel Storm, in the National Cup on September 23, the fixture is likely to whet the appetite of fans and players alike as the dream to reach Division One in the English League gathers pace.

The men’s team won promotion from the notoriously difficult Division Four (Midlands) in their first season in the English Basketball League (EBL), and will compete in Division Three South, come September, playing their home games at Copleston High School.

The vision was to reach the second-tier of England’s national league within five years at least. And Nick Drane’s team, which features a mix of experienced campaigners and young players from Copleston High School-based Ipswich Academy (where the 31-year-old also coaches), are ahead of schedule, having won 20 of their 22 league games last season.

The ambitions are lofty but, with a burgeoning youth structure already in place and facilities at Copleston having been updated to meet league criteria, Drane knows that a financial nudge in the right direction could see Ipswich v Hemel become a regular fixture.

“I was always confident in the back of my mind that we could win promotion, but when you are a new team in your first season you are coming up against big, thick-set guys who know how to throw 17, 18 and 19-year-old boys around the court without thinking anything about it,” said Drane.

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“But we managed to combine a core of veteran players with a group of kids from the academy and it was the perfect blend of youth and experience.

“We have managed to reach Division Three in one season, so we are ahead of schedule. And while the first target next season will be to avoid relegation, I am confident that if I can bring the players in that I know are interested in joining the club, plus a former professional who I have approached, we can be going for the top again.

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“We are playing in a national competition, producing England youth players such as Ben Mead and Joel Keeble, and we are in a position where, if we can get sponsorship, we could go to a new level with the contacts the other players and I have.

“There is so much going on at the club compared to ten years ago when Ipswich Basketball Club was just a women’s club with a junior setup. Now the men are in Division Three, the women have re-established themselves and the club is in partnership with one of the best academies (Copleston) in the country.

“I think, realistically, we will be good enough to get in the top half of the division and maybe the play-offs. We will also get the chance to test ourselves against a team from a much higher level, in Hemel. We could never have dreamed of landing a team like that in a pre-season game.”

While the plan is to establish the club as one of the best in the country, Drane – a former player with Colchester, who also has experience playing in Canada – is fully aware that the Ipswich club needs to gain a reputation as one that produces a conveyor belt of young talent.

Mead was a regular fixture for the club’s senior team last season, despite being only 16, and Keeble would have also played a major part had he not been sidelined with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament. Both are products of the impressive Ipswich Academy, which finished third in the national finals last season.

“I think there will be four or five academy players that get a chance on the bench next season while others will be commanding some minutes on the court,” said Drane.

“We need to move on and we are not going to hold people back like Ben Mead and Joel Keeble if they get the opportunity to play in America at college and maybe eventually as professionals.

“But 95 per cent of the kids will come through the academy and playing for Ipswich should be the pinnacle of their career.

“Being the third best academy in the country proves we are doing something right and, with a bit of a push in the right direction, who knows where we could be?”

Next season, the Tomcats’ home games will be played on Saturday nights at Copleston, as will the Ipswich Bobcats’.

“The atmosphere in that gym for academy games is electric with 2-300 kids watching,” explained Drane, who was an assistant coach as England Under-16s won silver at last year’s European Championships.

“Hopefully we can attract that fan base again.”

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