Wednesday 21 August 2019

Irish to seek home comfort at Euros after years in the 'wilderness'


Sorcha Tiernan of Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
Sorcha Tiernan of Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
Barry Lennon

Barry Lennon

Sorcha Tiernan faces another tough test after her Leaving Cert as she prepares for the European Championship for Small Countries in Cork with the national women's team.

The competition is a milestone for basketball in Ireland after the sport was forced to shelve all national teams over funding issues in 2009.

The Kildare woman, who finished her exams last week, won't be fazed by the occasion however, having played for Ireland's ground-breaking team at the European 'B' U-18 Championship in Dublin last year.

The 18-year-old is the only player from the side - that made Irish underage basketball history by reaching last summer's final - who steps up to the seniors for the competition.

Women's coach Mark Scannell explains that, despite the U-18s' achievement, it's hard for them to make his side for the landmark tournament.

"There's four or five of them involved in Leaving Certs and that doesn't work with our training. Sorcha has exams going up to the week before," he says.

"It's also a huge step up from underage to senior women's. A lot of my team are mid-twenties and some of them are in their early thirties."

"Six of them (the U-18s team) are under-18 again this year. They're playing in the 'A' competition this year. Logistically, it didn't really work."

Scannell, coach with Glanmire, still has plenty of worthy candidates willing to go the extra mile for the competition in Cork.

The Thurles-born Fiona O'Dwyer, who learned her trade growing up in the United States, travels from Spain where she plays professionally.

Edel Thornton also returns home from America to represent her country, having become the first Irish woman to make the last 16 in the NCAA Division 1 with Connecticut's Quinnipiac University.

For the Cork woman, a former player with Glanmire, the tournament in the Mardyke Arena couldn't be closer to home.

"Making the team is one thing but making the team that's playing in the Mardyke, which is like six or seven minutes from my house, is great," she says.

The 21-year-old especially wants to represent Ireland having missed out during the shelving of all national sides following the withdrawal of state funding.

"(When I was) under-16 they cut the funding that year so we never went to the European Championships but we did play some international games then," Thornton reflects.

"So the opportunity to be able to put on a jersey for a senior team and to be home to do it is fantastic."

Scannell admits that those years "in the wilderness" without any national teams hurt the sport.

"A whole generation lost an opportunity to play basketball at all levels. Thanks be to God above the decision was taken to bring us back in," he says.

"It (the chance to represent Ireland) gives basketball the advantage over the GAA. I think the basketball community understood how important these teams were."

With the association's house in order, hosting the tournament gives basketball a shot in the arm.

The sport has rallied around the national sides since their return, with Scannell's side reaping the rewards from renewed interest in them.

The Mardyke Arena allows Ireland's senior women to use its facilities for free.

Blue Demons' player-manager Colin O'Reilly, a former Cork senior hurling club champion, chips in as the side's strength and conditioning coach.

"It's totally voluntary. Everything we do is fund-raised. Everything the girls do is voluntary. We went to Poland to prepare and we had to raise thousands," Scannell explains.

"The association do the best they can but to be honest with you the money that we get is very, very minimal. We try to be as professional as we can given the circumstances.

"Hopefully we'll get our reward when the competition kicks off."

Having enjoyed the greens shoots of economic recovery, Ireland hope it transfers to the court when they begin their campaign against Norway this evening before group clashes with Luxembourg (tomorrow) and Cyprus (Thursday).

TODAY'S FIXTURES: Malta v Denmark, 1.45; Luxembourg v Cyprus, 4.0; Ireland v Norway, 6.15; Gibraltar v Moldova, 8.30

Irish Independent

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