Congratulations to Krystal Leger-Walker for winning a championship with the Townsville Fire in her first year in the WNBL – making it two Grand Finals in seven months for the Kiwi baller and Tall Fern to start her professional basketball career.
In August last year, shortly after completing her 142-game collegiate career with the Washington State University Cougars in women’s NCAA Division I, Leger-Walker helped Northern Kāhu to the inaugural Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa championship game.
Leger-Walker played all 14 games for the Kāhu in their 2022 campaign, averaging 8.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists (3rd best) and 2.4 steals (4th best) per game. Unfortunately for her and the Kāhu, the outcome wasn’t as they hoped as the regular season champions were downed 71-62 by Tokomanawa Queens in a thrilling final.
Following the completion of the Tauihi season, the 25-year old was Northern Queensland-bound to link up with Townsville Fire in the Australian Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL). The Fire enjoyed a dominant season, winning the regular season title with a 17-4 record before sweeping Southside Flyers 2-0 in the best-of-three Grand Final series. Clinching the series with an 82-69 victory in Melbourne, Leger-Walker was able to claim a WNBL winners medal in her first attempt.
Townsville Fire and the Kiwi connection
Interestingly, the win means the Townsville Fire now have won four WNBL championships and on each occasion a Kiwi – or two – have played a part in the Fire’s success. The Fire claimed their maiden title in 2014/15 and defended their title successfully the following season in the first best-of-three Grand Final series. In 2017/18, the club won its third championship in four years.
A constant in all three championship wins was Micaela Cocks, who was named the Grand Final MVP in 2015/16. Cocks would go on to play a record 240 games for the Fire and be awarded a Life membership in recognition of her achievements.
Playing alongside Cocks in that first championship win was Jillian Harmon, while another Tall Fern Chevannah Paalvast was a teammate in 2015/16. The list of Kiwis – all New Zealand internationals – that have played for the Fire doesn’t end with the four championship winners either.
Two-time Olympian Aneka Kerr played two seasons (2008-2010) immediately after her second Olympic campaign in Beijing, while fellow Olympian Kate McMeeken-Ruscoe also joined the Fire following that Olympic campaign.
In 2011 Casey Lockwood suited up for the Queensland, staying stayed for two seasons (2011-2013) while more recently Tokomanawa Queens captain Stella Beck played one season for the Fire in 2018-19 in her first WNBL season.
Tall Ferns duty beckons for Leger-Walker
Leger-Walker has little time to dwell on her championship success, with a couple of Tall Ferns assignments looming large. Firstly it’s a trip to Singapore this week for the FIBA 3×3 Asia Cup where she will suit up alongside Lauryn Hippolite, Esra McGoldrick and Sharne Pupuke-Robati.
It will be a short transition period for Leger-Walker to switch from the full court five on five game to the three vs three half-court version. However it’s a challenge Leger-Walker is looking forward to.
“Definitely 3×3 is a whole different game. I played 3×3 for New Zealand at the U18 level before I went to college in the US, so this is the first time post college that I’ll be playing 3×3. I’m excited to see how our team goes and I can’t wait to get stuck in – for me, being a small guard and playing fast means that 3×3 should suit my style of play.”
Following the Singapore trip, the 31-cap international will head into the Tall Ferns Camp to prepare for the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup; held in Sydney from 26 June. With her fellow camp attendees including ex-Townsville players Beck and Paalvast, it will be an opportune time to reflect on their tenures with the Fire.