Francis O'Sullivan is turning the tide in Brunell

The announcement brought an approving nod from basketball’s cognoscenti. Francis O’Sullivan in as head coach at Brunell? Nice move, writes Tony Leen.
Francis O'Sullivan is turning the tide in Brunell

The former Demon is among of cadre of serious hoops thinkers in this country. His wife Grace was a founder member of the Brunell club which had knocked on O’Sullivan’s door before. At the start of this campaign, they got the answer they were looking for.

Brunell wanted someone to move the club beyond the psychological confines of the northside of Cork city. The community spirit is their strength but Brunell wanted to open themselves up to outsiders. They expected him to hang up the phone. He didn’t.

Maybe now he wishes he had?

No. Because O’Sullivan’s deep in the hole now with the rest of the Brunell players, committee and club. They’re in a scrap and working feverishly to right the ship.

The 1-7 strugglers know staying in the Superleague is key to the development of their nascent talent but anybody believing tonight’s National Cup semi against Glanmire (Neptune Stadiun, 8.30pm) is “a nice distraction” from the bread and butter of the league needs a crash course in Irish basketball and Cork rivalries.

There’s more storylines and plots than an anthology of short stories. Ireland head coach (Mark Scannell) up against Ireland assistant coach (Francis O’Sullivan). Cork bragging rights. Brunell’s first cup semi-final in a quarter of a century.

And who coached the last-eight win 25 years ago? Francis O’Sullivan, because his wife (and then Brunell head coach) Grace was expecting son Ciarán — now a Superleague star with Demons.

With Glanmire 8-0 in the Superleague, it should be a rollover. But O’Sullivan likes his odds and being long-shots is still better than being downright unfortunate.

Brunell’s committee weren’t just pleased with recruiting O’Sullivan. They’d also inked deals for the returning Canadian centre Kaylee Kilpatrick (6’3”), Victory Scholar Madison Ward out of Merrimack College, young local talent Kelly Diggin from St Anthony’s, and they anticipated international Megan O’Leary would return healthy from tendon surgery. One bad weekend doing a good deed nixed all that.

During a charity three-way tourney in Youghal, Diggin tore her cruciate and Kilpatrick dislocated her shoulder. Soon it emerged O’Leary was out for the year. “She would have been our game-changer,” O’Sullivan reflects ruefully.

It wasn’t long before Brunell were 0-6 in the league and long-faced in the gym.

“We made the decision to stick with Kaylee even though she would be out for six weeks,” the coach explains. “She had been here before, it was less of an adjustment for her, but we knew we were leaving ourselves open. Honestly we thought we’d win one or two games. The NUIG Mystic loss in the league was horrific for us because we knew relegation was now a real issue.”

O’Sullivan had other problems. “The losses created an atmosphere around the club. My role is to develop these young girls, but it’s senior basketball. People want wins. They’re a young, young team — only one of them is not a student.

“The losses created a cloud, every which way we turned we were doing it wrong. My job has nearly been about counselling the girls as much as coaching them. It’s been about keeping them positive, keeping an energy in the building. Training has always gone well, every night we’ve been getting better, the issue was transferring it into the games.

“Then when Kaylee came back, Irish international Amy Waters got injured. I was like ‘would someone put away the voodoo doll please’.”

The thing is O’Sullivan loves Brunell and what it stands for. “They’re the nearest thing I’ve seen in Irish basketball to a GAA club. There’s a spirit there, they come from one area, the north-side of the city, Gurranabraher. It’s tightly knit, they’re passionate. But the new committee, who are all former players, wanted to open up the club more to outsiders.

“To expand and be ambitious without turning their back on what has made them so good, so successful at underage. Like when someone comes to college in Cork, Brunell want as much of a shout for that player as Glanmire.

“They don’t want the next Claire Rockall or Grainne Dwyer to go straight to Glanmire. Open up the club without losing what its obvious strengths are.”

Things turned gradually and Brunell started turning good practice sessions into weekend performances. Winning the Cup quarter-final against NUIG in Parochial Hall might prove a season-changer (73-58, Kilpatrick 24, Ward 21). A week later, buoyed, they edged Meteors for their first league win. A moment to take stock.

“I’ve had to question everything, where I am as a coach. I had to row back on some strategies because right now it had to be about getting wins. We weren’t playing well, we were lacking the passion you would associate with Brunell — pressing, high tempo, winning the dirty balls.”

The former Demons coach Doug Leichner often spoke of the “drama about drama” culture, and O’Sullivan knew that the Brunell girls were living the angst every day in the community. They’ve suffered together.

The girls know I have their back, we weathered the storm together. I didn’t get fired. When we were in the difficult moments it was drama about drama. Some people took the opportunity to be mischievous. For some, the Parochial Hall is the centre of the basketball universe, and as a coach to Brunell, you are a target. But I am a big boy.”

He concedes that Brunell “have to stay up” in the Superleague, they still have eight games to play, many of them at home and they’re only a game back on Meteors and Mystics. But it’s hard to believe anything will come close to tonight’s cup semi-final for intensity and atmosphere.

“The sight of the Glanmire jersey, they will be up for this game. We had a third-quarter lead over them in the league before going under to the power of Claire Rockall and Grainne Dwyer down the stretch (58-72). Mark (Scannell) encouraged me to do this, it’s odd facing him. Glanmire has three of Ireland’s starting five at senior, so we’re up against it. But we’re getting used to that.”

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