THE image of Billy Hughes’ exuberant celebrations after the final siren of the 2014 BigV division one grand final is firmly entrenched in Les Stothard’s memory banks, and likely forever will be.
It was the first men’s flag the rebranded Latrobe City Energy had ever claimed – a monolithic milestone in the club’s history – and formed a bond among the victorious comrades which won’t soon be broken.
Those ties of friendship were the hardest for the premiership’s mastermind to overlook as he considered his resignation, but Energy’s most decorated coach Les Stothard has called it a day after three years in the saddle.
The 31 year-old led the side to the playoffs in all three years of his tenure, and two consecutive grand finals, cementing his place among the former ‘Gippsland Pacers’ pantheon.
Stothard recalled watching the Pacers in his youth at a packed out Traralgon Stadium, something his generation fell well short of when he got his chance as a player.
Having endured the desolate days of a decade ago, on the end of thrashings from country and metro teams alike each week, success tasted all the sweeter as a coach.
“I was lucky enough to play at this level 10 years ago and we were getting terrible crowds because we sucked, we were getting beaten by 10, 20, 30 points a game, and a lot of the guys in this team have gone through that as well,” Stothard said.
“It was certainly nice to get that little bit of success and some of the crowds we played in front of were absolutely outstanding.
“To get that pride of place again in the region, which we know is so heavily involved in footy and other sports, it was good to get that recognition.
“When that siren went in game three on that Sunday afternoon I can still picture it now… something I’ll never forget, it was a major achievement.”
The former senior best and fairest footballer at Newborough was first approached to coach Energy in 2012 while in charge at Churchill Blue Devils, but deferred the opportunity until the following year.
When he took up the mantle in 2013 the club reached its first finals campaign in about six years, laying the foundation for the breakthrough premiership.
Stothard claimed his role in the club’s success was minor – the perfect storm was already brewing.
“I was lucky enough to come into a group on the upward spiral, put a couple of touches on which I hope contributed, but the players deserve all the credit,” he said.
“The core group was in place and had been playing together for some time. It wasn’t about going in to reinvent the wheel, it was more just about… trying to instil a winning culture, something the men’s program hadn’t had.
“The group was good enough and that was the overriding factor I saw from the outside… they just had to believe they were good enough.”
Harnessing the talent of mainstays Jordan Canovan, Nick Sedley and Vashon Weaver, in addition to the influence of United States imports such as Ashton Pitts and the rise of young stars like Jack White and Ben Barlow, the talent pool was deep.
Unfortunately, it was also widespread.
Stothard said managing a side spread from Sale to Melbourne, splitting training between Warragul and the Latrobe Valley, all amid the backdrop of an under-resourced volunteer based organisation was a tough task.
However it was a labour of love and one he will miss.
“I’m going to miss spending time with the players. We train probably 10 months of the year, played six months of the year… you spend 10 to 20 hours with them a week,” he said.
“You’re in a group with 15 people at the max and you do become quite close… they’re all going to be classed as my friends forever.”
Club captain Jarryd Moss said the feeling was mutual.
“He’s like a family member, we’ve had an extremely tight group over the last few years with him at the helm. Losing him is like losing the father figure or leader to that group, he’ll certainly be tough to replace,” Moss said.
The Energy skipper described the departing coach as a man who commanded respect without asking, yelling or screaming for it.
“He gave us a lot more freedom as the years went on… some coaches have their own agenda or own ego and really feel the need to stamp their authority on a group of players. He had our respect but never had to force the issue… he was able to give us the freedom to play within ourselves and get the best out of each player,” Moss said.
Moss said Stothard’s commitment was another cornerstone of success.
Despite the birth of twin daughters while he was coach, changing jobs, his wife on and off work because of the pregnancy, Moss said Stothard missed maybe one training session in three years.
“He was an ultimate professional to the position that he held and that just translated through the rest of the group,” he said.
“He was able to manage… every individual. Guys want to play minutes, they’re making sacrifices and they want to be out on the court helping the team.”
While Energy did not realise the goal of returning to state championship level under his watch – the club’s application to return to the top flight was rejected despite its premiership credentials – the foundation is there for a tilt in the future.
The basketball journey may be over for now, but the coaching caper will continue, albeit in another code.
Stothard has signed on as Newborough Football Club reserves coach for 2016, returning to the club he won a senior flag with, vice captained and won a senior best and fairest with years ago.
He admitted he was initially nervous about how the basketball fraternity would react, but felt the move was the right fit and allowed him to spend more time with his family.
“It’s very different environments the basketball and footy clubs. The travel and not having a home base and things like that (with Energy), there’s always somewhere to go with the footy club, it’s a much bigger group and a lot of the players have kids around the same age as mine… it’s a good fit for me at the moment,” he said.
Stothard thanked everyone who had been involved at Energy throughout his tenure.