She is slight and unfailingly polite but an altogether more robust young lady than the callow girl who cut her basketball teeth in the Parochial Hall on the northside of Cork city.
Four years ago, venerable Tralee coach Jimmy Diggins tapped me on the arm during an U18 National Cup semi-final at the Hall. “Watch No. 11 Brunell,” he gestured towards a slip of youthful vigour slaloming to the basket. “She’s the real deal.”
The basketball program at Sweet 16 college Quinnipiac is nodding approvingly. The shy, introvert, and once homesick Edel Thornton has matured into a leader, a co-captain, and a bona-fide NCAA starlet. On St Patrick’s Day last, she went for 14 points as eighth ranked Quinnipiac outlasted Miami in a televised duel on ESPN.
And her senior year is yet to come.
Tonight, Cork gets to see what legendary Quinnipiac head coach Tricia Fabbri is making all the fuss about.
“I got a lot of ‘don’t think you’ll stay there’ before I left Cork,” she says as Ireland prep for tonight’s opening clash with Norway in the European Small Nations Championships at the Mardyke Arena.
“I don’t know was I really prepared for how mentally challenging it was going to be. I was prepared for the tough physical regime, but the first two months was a real mental struggle to adapt. I was adapting to college in a new culture with new friends, new basketball lifestyle, and no family.”
When her Irish team-mate Claire Rockall was at college in Iowa one of the tough trade-offs she hadn’t bargained for was the lonely flipside of game-night wins when her team-mates were off celebrating with family. She went back to her dorm.
“There’s another girl from Latvia, and we had each other’s back constantly,” Thornton, 21, explains. “When my family came out from Cork, if we had a meal, she came with us. In fairness, the team makes a big effort for us, and everyone invites you out with them but you feel like you’re stepping on toes. You realise it after a game that everyone’s with their family and you’re in a room.”
From the frustration of a three-month ankle injury lay-off as a freshman, she progressed as a sophomore and junior to the point where coach Tricia Fabbri started her in the NCAA championship games this campaign. It was a monstrous endorsement of Thornton’s progress in the program which eats up 20 hours of her week.
The regime in three words: Train, film, lift.
“I understand how to play a lot more now,” Thornton explains. “When I started over there I was struggling. I didn’t know that I didn’t know stuff, if you know what I mean. Like coming off a screen, now you understand that if a team-mate does one thing, you dovetail with her. You watch film of yourself and you get to understand your weaknesses and your strengths, so now I know if there’s areas an opponent might take one option away from you, I have something else to fall back.
“I never shot the ball before I left Cork, but now I am a three-point shooter if anything. Everything changed in a year. You can’t — or at least I can’t — get into the basket over there. I had to adjust my game to shoot the ball more and study opposition defence. We would get a booklet on each collegiate opposition in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), on the individual players, and the team’s plays. Even opposition players would be saying to me that our scouting is insane! Like the opposition would call their play out and we’d already know what was coming. Rivals coaches were saying we knew their plays better than they did themselves. So that helps in understanding the game more.”
One of of the assistants to Ireland head coach Mark Scannell is Francis O’Sullivan, who has a greater appreciation than most of what Thornton has done.
“She’s grounded in a culture that is high achieving, the college and the coach have gone to another level and she’s been integral to that fantastic story. She’s a starter, a facilitator, not a rock star but a major contributor, and I hope the people this week understand that different people bring different roles to any team dynamic.”
Meaning? “She will score, and her outside shooting is at a very high level, but her sophistication of how the game can be played is what I am talking about. The way she manages the team, her decision making in the half-court, and she still has that tenacity on defence, a willingness to put her body on the line.
“You have to admire what she has achieved. She is so coachable, a girl from the heart of Cork’s northside who set out her stall and said ‘I want to play at the highest level of basketball’ and has found a way of getting minutes in a system that would be very alien to Irish girls.
“Our job with Ireland this week is almost to take her away from the Quinnipiac system and all the strengths of that and get her to express herself a little bit more. That’s a challenge for her because we mightn’t be as detailed or specific as what she is used to. There’s a balance between the system we have and allowing our girls to play off the cuff and see what it’s front of them. Even having the girls in Cork for three or four days, you can appreciate the amount of work we can get done as coaches. Imagine that at college level every day, getting into intricacies and detail?”
And yet beyond the hardwood, Thornton is buzzed just to be back amongst her own. In Cork.
"You’d go to town here to pick up a couple of things and you meet anyone and everyone, and they all stop and talk to you. People ask ‘how you are’ and genuinely talk to you about that, whereas over in America it can be a bit ‘Hi, how are you’ but no one sticks around to actually find out the answer. I appreciate the little things a lot, recognising faces here.
“I’m from the northside, from Gurranabraher and I’ve done a bit with a ball and a basket. I’ve grown up, I’ve got an education (she is majoring in Psychology), I’ve seen a bit and for kids to understand you can do that no matter who you are or where you’re from means they will buy into it. For the Brunell kids, that’s relatable.
"You don’t think it, but it makes you realise stuff that you don’t get handed anything.”
Even as late as the start of last conference and championship season at Quinnipiac, Thornton admits she was short on confidence.
“The trust that coach Fabbri had in me this season alone.. we do a five-in, five-out rotation so I hadn’t started a game but when she started me in the championship game in the NCAA that showed she could trust me and that I needed to trust myself. I struggled a little bit this season with confidence so the sudden surge when you know that everybody has your back, the confidence just comes right back again.”
Hopefully, Mark Scannell’s squad gets the bounce off that too this week, kicking off tonight against the Norwegians in the opening pool encounter.
“I’m 21. Is there an extra pressure? I go out and there’s Ireland written across my top, and there’s five of us on the court together. I am not going out on my own and I don’t ever look at it like that. We all have each other’s back and we are all as good as each other. If we can put on a show, it will be amazing.”
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