David Nilsson: Long way to the top if you want an ABL title
BRISBANE Bandits coach David Nilsson hasn't exactly had an easy ride in getting his team to its first championship series, in the revamped ABL competition.
The Bandits are set to play in an historic ABLCS at Holloway Field, starting with game one against the Adelaide Bite, at Holloway Field tonight.
It has been a fairytale season for the franchise after it failed to qualify for the playoffs in all previous five seasons of the new ABL, while the Bandits have not won an ABL title since 1994.
But Nilsson - Australia's first ever Major League All Star - has had to make some tough roster decisions along the way.
Cutting former captain and Ipswich Musketeers star Josh Roberts during the season last summer was one of those difficult calls.
Roberts was understandably shattered, telling APN he didn't agree with the direction the franchise was headed, after coming back to Holloway Field in a Melbourne Aces uniform, in December.
Brad Dutton was another former Bandits captain who Nilsson deemed surplus to requirements last summer.
But it's fair to say the marquee coach has got the best out of everyone in his new-look squad this summer.
The recruiting has been superb, with all minor league signings from the US starring, including star outfielder Justin Williams, with an equal league second-best 10 home runs.
American Riley Unroe also finished the regular season with the league's sixth-best batting average of .318, Bralin Jackson had 57 hits, catcher Maxx Tissenbaum was consistent behind the plate and averaged .295 with the bat, and TJ Bennett was a dynamic mid-season signing with eight homers and a .319 average.
Not all minor-league recruits have fired for the Bandits in previous seasons.
Major League recruits - left-arm pitcher Travis Blackley (1.50 earned run average in four games) and slugger Donald Lutz (five homers in 27 games) - have been highly impressive too.
But it has been the local Brisbane products who have added so much to the squad in 2015/16, with the Bandits finishing a comfortable six games in front, in the race for the minor premiership.
Locals Logan Wade and David Sutherland averaged over .300 with the bat, and Mitch Nilsson - David's nephew - crushed nine homers with 39 runs batted in.
Sutherland became the first player in ABL history to reach 200 hits.
And converting fellow Bandits stalwart Ryan Searle from a starter to a closer was a huge success, the big Brisbane man reaching a league-record 17 saves.
"It doesn't surprise you because everything he does and who he is, he profiles in that role, which is why he went down there," Nilsson said of Searle.
"He's been on a good team and had some good success, so the team's contributed to a lot of his success, but he's been lights out."
Nilsson admitted he needed to make some tough calls and changes to how he went about his role, after his first season back at the helm saw his team once again fall short of the playoffs in 2014/15.
"A lot of work went into it in the off-season - we reviewed last year," he said.
"We had a good team last year, but I came in late right before the season.
"And there were a few fragments within the group last year."
So Nilsson focussed on building team chemistry this summer.
"There was a changing of the guard," he said.
"So I met with a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds about creating a strong team environment, and I got a lot of thoughts.
"A lot of the team spent Australia Day together and the first road trip this year we got off the plane and I took everyone out for lunch.
"That's what we've been doing, and a few other times this year I've taken them out for lunch, and it's rolled through the whole year.
"That's all part of it when you have a good group of guys - they want to spend a lot of time together."
This weekend could well be one which Nilsson's tight-knit roster will never forget.
"I'm excited at the chance to win and play for a title," he said.
"It's good to see all the stuff going on around us (with extra outfield bleachers for the championship series) - whether there's 1000 people, 5000 or 100 - the team is still excited to play for a championship.
"We love the bigger crowds, but we're enjoying it without getting caught up in it."