|13 April 2005|
By Steve Douglas, PA International
When Torbjorn Gehrke took over as coach at Sodertalje Kings two years ago, he knew something radical had to happen if the team were to cast off their 'nearly men' tag and make that giant leap to Grundserien success.
For the nine years the new league had been in existence, the Kings had been among the front-runners to claim the title only to fall by the wayside when it came to the crunch.
Gehrke, who had been part of this under-achieving squad before deciding to try his hand at coaching, felt the best way to secure long-term success at the club was to make use of the raft of talented youngsters at their disposal.
Having notified the board of his intentions, he set about turning their richly-gifted pool of youth players into national champions - and, 24 months on, his plan paid the ultimate dividend.
On Sunday, the Kings completed a comfortable 87-63 victory of rivals Sundsvall Dragons to seal a 4-2 final series win.
So how had this turnaround at the club been achieved? According to Gehrke, spending hours and hours in the gym had much to do with it.
"I think it started two years ago when I took the job," the ambitious Kings boss told PA International.
"I sat down with the club and said we needed to start all over again. They were always reaching the semi-finals of the play-offs and I said to them 'we don't have players, so let's go with the kids'.
"I was coaching the development team and I knew that the kids would eventually come into the first team. So we put nine youngsters in the men's team and we got knocked out in the semi-finals again last year.
"We knew they weren't strong enough, so we signed a strength coach and started to build the team up.
"We started it last summer and have done it hard this year as well. Some would spend 10 hours in the gym lifting weights but it was clear they had the talent in the first place."
That extra work in the gym seemed to pay off at the start of the season as they shot out of the blocks, winning their first 11 games.
The back-end of the campaign, which saw them defeated in 11 of their final 19 matches, was not quite as fruitful and they finished the regular season fourth in Pool A1 with one of their star players, shooting guard Jens Stalhandske, on the sidelines.
We started out 11-0 but then got some injuries and a lot of the injuries became an excuse when we started to lose," Gehrke continued.
"We finished the season with just eight wins and we went into the play-offs with Jens injured so it was not going well."
Their tribulations were soon forgotten, however, as they brushed aside the considerable challenge of Norrkoping Dolphins 3-2 in the quarter-finals and then scraped into the finals with another 3-2 series victory, this time over Plannja Basket.
"We squeezed past Norrkoping by the smallest of margins and we had that little luck.
"Against Plannja, Jens came back and he has been our best player all year as far as scoring was concerned.
"With him back, the self-belief came back. We had our full squad and again we had that luck you need in the semi-finals. I mean one game, we were down by eight points with 10 minutes to go and still won.
"We never underestimated our opponents but we sometimes overestimated ourselves."
Their opponents in the finals, the Dragons, began the series at breakneck speed but it soon became clear that they were punching above their weight.
The Kings went on to wrap up the next four games and secured their first finals win in 11 years.
"We went down 2-0 but we got some breaks and ended tying 2-2," said Gehrke.
"We knew they were playing above themselves but we just couldn't stop them. Even if we played our best defence, we still couldn't stop them scoring.
"But in games five and six, they didn't play that well and we stopped them at last and won the two games by big margins."
It was a fairytale finish to the season for influential point guard Peter Theisz, who had announced his retirement earlier in the campaign.
Gehrke admitted his captain was not the most talented player in his squad but revealed he was definitely the most inspirational.
"Jens was important, but so was Peter," he said. "He is a phenomenal leader.
When he played we won, when he didn't play we lost.
"He called it (retirement) in the quarter-finals and I think he has earned it. He is a very good player but more than that he is a good person.
"He is limited as a player. It is hard for him to be at the top of his game all the time. He has to work much harder than everyone else but he was hungry.
"Sometimes you know when it's right to go."
Theisz might not be the only influential player leaving Sodertalje following their title-winning exploits.
Stalhandske is on the verge on a switch to the Spanish League while Gehrke himself may well be on his way out of the club.
"Jens wants to try his wings in Europe and I can understand that. But I hope we can make him stay," the 37-year-old Kings coach added.
"My wife is maybe getting a job in Europe so I have not signed a contract for next year.
"I would love to stay and have a shot at defending the title back to back. I will be very sad if I leave. I am very fortunate to have the players we have got at the moment."
One thing is for sure - the Kings will persevere with their policy of bringing youth players through the ranks.
Whether or not he is there next season, Gehrke insists the youngsters are the future of the club and he believes it is hugely important they continue to allow them to blossom.
"I hope that the club will stick with the younger players. There's a couple of young guys that can play for us next season but we are always keeping our eye out for new talent.
"We are going to keep eight or nine (of the current squad) and maybe add some Americans."
Whatever does happen at Sodertalje, the modest Gehrke - who insists he will one day coach Sweden - will never forget his group of players from the 2004-05 season.
"We weren't the best team in the league on paper and we have had to work our ass off. My players have made huge contributions to get this far.
"The coach will never be as good as his players. The players win games and the coach loses them.
"It might not be such a bad thing for them to get a new coach."