A ROLLERCOASTER season for under-age basketball in Sligo will take two local teenagers all the way to the European Championships in Sarajevo, Bosnia, later this year.
Summerhill College students, Cillian Gallagher (16) and Philip Hamilton (15) are in the twelve-man Irish Under 16 squad hoping to make a big impact at the prestigious tournament in August.
It will be the culmination of an exciting year for the talented young players who were both influential members of the Sligo All Stars team which won the Under 16 All-Ireland Division A League last week.
It was a paticularly hectic period for Cillian as he was also on the Sligo Rugby Club Under 17 team which won the Connacht League and Cup double before losing to Navan in the All-Ireland final.
Philip is also a versatile young sportsman, with a national Community Games gold medal for 80m hurdles and a Connacht record for the high jump to his credit.
And he also has the small matter of his Junior Cert exams this summer.
"It's all about trying to get the right balance", says Philip, who somehow manages to combine an almost obsessive commitment to basketball training with the All Stars and the Irish squad and his acamdemic obligations.
Cillian is in Transition Year at Summerhill so doesn't have exam pressures to cope with. But he still follows a demanding training regime, particularly at the height of the basketball and rugby seasons.
At 6ft.5", Cillian fits the profile of a typical basketball player but there's a subtlety and cleverness about his play which confirms there's more to his game than just height and power.
"He's just a pure natural", says All Stars coach, Shane O'Meara
"He didn't start playing basketball until his first year in Summerhill and then he came to the All Stars.
"From the first day he came to us, I knew he had something special. He made the same instant impression with the national coaches when they came to watch him"
With the helpful guidance of Shane and Glenn Monaghan at the All Stars and John Moran and Emer Murphy at Summerhill, Cillian developed rapidly as a real talent and was invited to join the Irish squad for a training camp last July.
There followed regular training sessions with the national squad before Cillian made his international debut in a two-game tournament against Denmark in January.
It helped that his All Stars team mate, Philip, was also in the Irish set-up. Together, the Sligo boys helped Ireland to notable wins over England, Scotland and Wales over the last few months and now it's all systems go for the European Championships.
"It's very exciting to have the Europeans to look forward to", says Cillian.
"There are thirty countries taking part so it will be extremely tough. But we'd be looking at a top sixteen finish and if things go well we could even make the top eight"
Philip's basketball roots go back a little further than Cillian's.
He was hooked from he was seven years old and the infectious enthusiasm which kickstarted his love for the game burns as fiercely as ever.
Philip was just fourteen years old when he got involved in the Irish international programme and he's made his way through the ranks to earn a place in the Under 16 squad for Bosnia.
His dedication to the game is unrelenting, spending hours and hours every week enhancing and perfecting his natural talent.
"We're fortunate that we've got a brilliant crop of young players at the club at the moment", says coach O'Meara.
"It's one thing having natural talent but young lads need to have the application and dedication to go with it.
"Philip's extraordinary commitment is typical of the sort of effort all the boys put in"
Philip's exceptional talent was underlined when he won the MVP award at the All-Ireland Division One Championships recently and now he's looking forward to testing himself against the best players in Europe.
Irish coach, Paul Kelleher, has been a huge influence on both Sligo boys and they would love to repay his faith in them by helping Ireland do well at the European Championships.
The Irish squad will train in Sligo on May 4th and 5th as part of their preparations for the Europeans.