Dave Ryan reports…
ESSEX Leopards start a hectic January programme this weekend as they look to move up the league table and progress in the National Trophy.
The Big Cats travel to Division One leaders Solent Kestrels on Saturday before visiting Hemel Storm in the Trophy the following day, and it’s the start of a hectic month that sees Thomas Baker’s team face three straight double header weekends.
It will be the second time in a month that Leopards have faced Solent, having lost 81-70 to the big-spending Eastleigh-based side in the National Cup semi-final at the Brentwood Centre.
Kestrels are certainly flying high at the top of the Division One table with only one loss from 11 games and are clear favourites for the title.
The following day’s trip to Hemel provides a different kind of test against a side coached by an ex-Leopard and packed full of former Big Cats.
The Hertfordshire side cannot progress from the group stage, but a win for Baker’s team would see them reach their second semi-final of the season, with a home game against Loughborough Riders awaiting them if they can collect the win.
After winning the National Cup last season it’s been a tough campaign for Youngblood’s team, and they sit second-from-bottom in the league table with only two wins from ten games.
They split their other two Trophy games, beating Thames Valley Cavaliers but lost to Reading Rockets to exit the competition, but like Leopards they reached the Cup semi-final before losing at Loughborough following a late collapse.
Baker is looking forward to getting back into action following the Christmas break: “It has been a much needed break from a hectic early part of the season” he said.
“We picked up some vital wins but the real work starts now. This weekend we face off against the league leaders who we played against in the cup before the break.
“They are a solid team who have experienced players who know how control a game. We will need to learn from our game against them before and be ready to compete. “The next day we play against an unpredictable Hemel side in the Trophy looking to make our second semi final of the season.
“It will be a great achievement for the club to reach another semi final but Hemel won’t make it easy for us. We will be need to battle and fight for everything we can get.”
The Big Cats will be without forward KJ Lee for the rest of the season after the American suffered a recurrence of a knee injury.