BALLINCOLLIG head coach Kieran O’Sullivan is a Liverpool supporter so could be forgiven for coming over all Jurgen Klopp when the possibility of a perfect season for his Men’s Division One champions crops up.
“It’s perfect already,” he smiles.
In that, he isn’t wrong. There may be three Division One fixtures to fulfil, but ‘The Village’ has taken care of business with games to spare and February still blowing hard.
The statistics are remarkable, not just for this season but their previous two in basketball’s National League. A perfect 19-0 this campaign, 73-7 across their first three seasons as a national league outfit - which includes a hat-trick of President’s Cups. 51 League wins out of 57. That’s a 91% win rate, and an average winning margin of 16 points.
“Amazingly gratifying,” O’Sullivan reflected after Saturday’s Superleague-clinching 94-67 home win over EJ Sligo All-Stars.
It’s the first time in quarter of a century a Cork club outside Neptune and Demons has reached the top tier of Irish basketball. “I don’t want to demean the Cups but this is so satisfying. Internally, it’s absolutely massive that we reached our destination. And even sweeter because of last season.”
Ah, last season. When Ballincollig were considered shoo-ins to reach the promised land of the Superleague only to trip up unexpectedly in the play-offs against Dublin Lions. They might still have been promoted by default when Swords Thunder fell out of the Superleague but against the odds, and seemingly with a nod to tradition, relegated Neptune were reinstated in the Superleague. Kieran O’Sullivan’s expression says everything you need to know about that Basketball Ireland decision but now the rear view mirror stretches back farther than 2019.
“There comes a time when you say ‘this is our club’. Five years ago, we reached that point,” O’Sullivan explains.
Ballincollig were investing in youth and nurturing local talent, but had no National league outlet to offer. “It had to end. We have lost the rest of them - Adrian, Ciaran, Daniel (all O’Sullivans) and we were looking at the same scenario with (21-year-old guard) Dylan Corkery. “If he’d left that would have broken us. I even said to (brother and the club’s driving force) Francis ‘you might be hesitating, but I am driving on with this’. And he’s my older brother, but I didn’t care, we were not giving our players away any more. Then I was out in Ballinlough watching my young fella play in a Junior B game, and Ciarán rang me and said ‘I want to come back to Ballincollig’ (from Demons). I just ran and got a pen.”
If Francis O’Sullivan is the father figure of the club and Kieran is the head coach, Ciarán is the on-court general. The ex-Irish international is still shy of 30 and playing the best ball of his career.
“When the lads were younger, they won a Billy Kelly (national U17 tournament) but never a National U18 Cup. We had Daniel (son of team manager Donal), and Ciaran, then Ronan (Kieran’s son) and Adrian (Francis’ son, Ciarán’s brother), so we had four Superleague-standard talents there. That’s how it came to a head with Dylan Corkery (20 pts on Saturday against Sligo). He was moving unless we went National League, and we said ‘this ain’t happening any more’. Even when we came into the league in 2017-18 we had premier league talents you could hang your hat on.
“The coaching and the ethos in the juvenile section, we always felt we were going to get players through. We have six guys training with us now that are U20, and there’s talent after that too. Ballincollig has three lads on the Ireland U16 squad.”
NOT securing promotion last year was a punch in the stomach. “We had a bad day at the office,” Kieran winces. “We got ridden by the refs, Andre (Nation) got fouled out, but ultimately a lot of it was our own fault. Hard lessons learned. But we didn’t have the depth that we do now. And we came away from the episode with a firm conviction that we were going up this season no matter what.”
They went after a ‘Bosman’ signing which didn’t work out. Another inadvertantly lucky strike. They recruited Spaniard Inigio Zabola instead from Saturday’s victims Sligo. “He has worked out a dream,” the coach says.
Ex James Madison standout Andre Nation, 28 points on Saturday, has been a Lottery win for Ballincollig but indigenous talent has been knocking on doors for years before they returned home to the village. Ciaran and Adrian went to Trinity-Pawlingin the US, Ronan went to Barking Abbey, Daniel went to Gran Canaria. They eachdid a stint in the Demons singlet.
And now there’s just Adrian still out there. He’s playing in Germany’s pro second tier with Nürnberg. His dad is just back from a trip. And a conversation.
“In terms of next year, that’s another story,” deadpans Ballincollig’s head coach - and his uncle.
“We aren’t a Neptune, Demons or a North Mon. It’s a huge achievement for a new club to get to the Superleague. I think that’s actually a bit under-appreciated out there. This club has been built from the ground up. And that’s why I mention the coaching. Because it’s underpinned everything we do.”
One might presume Ballincollig starts planning now for the big league, but of course they’ve been planning this moment for years. ‘It’s called a ‘village’ still but there’s a huge population with three new sports complexes coming on stream. We want to get into a new venue and build it up. I played in National League for many years and you have to get the off-the-court stuff done well. Stuff like having a National League committee as well as a club committee. Francis is always saying ‘you’ve got to have basketball people making basketball decisions’. You learn from the lessons of the past. We have got great people there.
“We are thinking ahead, I would like to think that we can compete next season. I wouldn’t be afraid to say that we can be in the top half of the Superleague.”
But can they see out the remaining three games of their Division 1 season unbeaten? Make it statistically perfect as well as everything else?
“I think it will be hard to keep that going.” Kieran O’Sullivan suggests. “Letterkenny up there next weekend will be tough. But if the players’ attitude is right, we will give it a rattle. Ciarán has got the bit between his teeth. We get on well. he does a lot of the coaching, I chip in. He’s challenging, but the best coaches are. Our characters are different but we talk every day. And there’ll be plenty to talk about now…”