WHEN you’re the cup minnows, and Hollywood’s just over the horizon, the road turns into a dirt-track, littered with mines and moments of dread.
St Anthony’s of Cork would know. The tiny basketball club has been nurturing a group of girls for the best part of a decade with the express intention of one day basking in the glow of National Cup final weekend.
Now that they’re Saturday’s cup semi-final away, the pressure’s almost off — if you are to believe coach Carol Diggin. She reckons last month’s quarter-final round was the real nerve-shredder for her team.
“You could see it in the last two games, against Moycullen in the qualifiers, and against Templeogue on our own court in the quarter-finals, that the nerves were hampering us. We didn’t get going in the quarter-final until the second half. We were nine down at one stage.”
The club, started by Diggin and her sister Miriam, is run on a shoestring and relies heavily on the vibrant energy and spirit of volunteerism that is the hallmark of the best underdog stories. With little resources or outside funding, the club has limited ambitions, but their girls U18 team has given St Anthony’s a national profile that may be fleeting but could be glorious.
Diggin’s 17-year-old Kelly is one of the game’s bright young talents, a freakishly athletic freestyler who has led from the front again this season. What’ll be key — now that the likes of Saturday’s semi-final opponents, DCU Mercy, have her well scouted — is whether others, like Irish U18 colleague Kate Leneghan, Ciara Murray, Anna Riordan and Sally Griffin can step up and steer St Anthony’s to a cup final weekend.
“We should be fine if everyone plays, the coach — a standout national league player (Carol Buckley) with Blarney until a serious back injury stopped her dead at 23 — reckons. “Most of the girls have a fair bit of big game experience since they were 12 or 13. Along the way, Sally and Maura Tabb added to the mix and we brought Ciara McCarthy and Rachel O’Connell in from Kanturk this season. They’ve done well for us.”
“Kelly, Kate, and Ciara were playing together since they were seven, and their competitiveness and commitment has never known any bounds. They never gave up on this dream, they had the fight to stick with it. Each year, we’d lose two or three because the training and the commitment was hard at times, but we’d always bounce back.”
The club base is St Anthony’s Boys NS in Ballinlough, where principal Flor O’Sullivan has encouraged and cajoled the club through some tough times. “We’ve fed the club through a nursery system, starting the players young, but the headaches every year trying to get coaches is a huge burden.
“It’s next to impossible to keep the show on the road. At times you’d be crying over it,” Diggin admits. “You almost have to bully people to get them involved and my personality has changed because of it. The kids suffer if they have no coach or team to play with. If I didn’t have this passion, I’d be gone.”
The coach admits that with five of her cup hopefuls doing the Leaving Cert this summer, the future for the club’s pin-up team is uncertain.
There’s a sense of a swansong about this cup run.
And it’s even more of a nerve-shredder when you’re coach and mother.
“I feel like a mother to them all at this stage. You never give up on them, because they never give up. They will nearly always come through. You keep drilling it home: Keep yer head up, it will happen. You can’t kill a child’s spirit by telling them not to do something any more.
“Kelly put pressure on herself because sometimes I reckon she’s trying to do it more for me than herself. I keep saying, there’s more to life than basketball.”
The U18s of St Anthony’s may take some convincing of that this weekend. In the Parochial Hall on Saturday at 10am, they meet the biggest challenge in the club’s brief history — literally. Three of DCU Mercy’s U18s are well over six foot and coach Diggin recognises the Cork girls are going to have to bring a hot hand with them in terms of their outside shooting. It’s unlikely their rebound stats will be winning them any semi-final.
“They’re so desperate to make it to the cup final. I think if they get to January 24, the pressure will be off to some extent.”
The conventional wisdom is that the Superleague powerhouses of DCU Mercy and Glanmire will overcome St Anthony’s and East Cavan Eagles on Saturday, but good judges believe that Anthony’s have the run ‘n’ gun approach to upset the form book.
“We have had them playing against boys since they were 12, it was the only way of bringing them on. There’s me, the girls, our manager Mags Riordan and some helpful mums who form part of an energetic new committee, led by Maria O’Shaughnessy.
“But it would never have got off the ground at all only for John McCarthy, John Chandler, Helen Kennedy, Breda Dempsey, Theresa Somers and David Hill. Even now, I don’t really realise how big this is for the club because we’re too busy running around, keeping the show on the road.”
They’ve only had one competitive game since Christmas, but the return of Ciara Murray — who was missing for the first quarter of the campaign — is a bonus, with Kelly Lynch out injured.
DCU Mercy have a massive presence inside, but in Saoirse Cassidy, they too have one of the underage grade’s brightest talents.
Though cup semi-final weekend kicks off with a bang tomorrow night for the men’s semis at the Mardyke Arena, often the purist form of hoops entertainment is the Under 18 and Under 20 grades — both of which are enjoying a renaissance of sorts these past couple of seasons.
Romance is always important in the cup — but the cold hard facts of finance are impossible to ignore too. St Anthony’s and Carol Diggin realise the profile making a final would create in terms of potential sponsorship and other revenue streams for a club where the biscuit box at the front door is often raided to pay the referees.
The romance of the cup, eh?
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