Huge excitement ahead of return of National League basketball
FOR MANY local teams, the long-awaited return of National League basketball this weekend brings with it many unknowns.
The relatively new North-South Conference format of the Super League, coupled with the usual influx of new talent and the fact that teams are only back training indoors this past month or so because of Covid restrictions, means it is even more difficult to anticipate just how the sides will fare this season.
Yet regardless of that, players are simply delighted to be back competing at the highest level on the back of what was a great summer for Irish men’s basketball with the capture of the FIBA European Championship for Small Countries title.
Mark Keenan, who coached that national team to success, will now be turning his attention to the domestic club scene as his Griffith College Templeogue side prepare to take on DCU Saints in their opening fixture of the Men’s Super League North Conference this Saturday.
Having already led the Reds to Super League, National Cup and Champions Trophy glory in recent years, Keenan will be hoping to add to that roll of honour and, with that in mind, has brought two new imports into his fold, namely 6’8” American forward DJ Mitchell and Spanish wing player Enrique Melini.
“DJ played Division One with Santa Clara University in California and his father Mike played for Ireland in around 2005/06” Keenan told The Echo.
“I first contacted DJ in relation to the national team. I was hoping I’d get him to replace Will Hanley on the national team because it looks like Will won’t be able to get over [for the FIBA EuroBasket 2025 Pre-Qualifiers] in November and February.
“DJ was potentially going to South America to play in Uruguay, but he wasn’t really sure about it.
“So I presented the option of coming here to Griffith and being here for when he gets his passport and being here for the nationals” he explained.
Keenan has had his share of difficulties in the lead-up to the start of the new club season, not least untimely injuries to team stalwarts Neil Randolph and Lorcan Murphy as well as the loss of the highly rated Matthew Harper to Malahide, but he is hopeful of fielding a strong side against a dangerous DCU outfit.
“DCU Saints is difficult fixture” he stressed. “They’re always been a tricky side for us. We lost out there last year.
“Hopefully we’ll be healthy. I think, like every team, we’re a few weeks behind where we’d like to be in terms of preparation and games, but it is what it is.
“Most teams are in the same boat, so we’ll just have to get on with it and try and get off to a good start” he added.
Near neighbours and conference rivals DBS Éanna have also shaken up their group ahead of their season opener against Killester with the arrival of former Murray State Division One player Devin Gilmore and ex-Killester centre Tolu Antonio.
These additions are a major boost to the Rathfarnham side who lost Marko Tomic, Samuel Light and Oisin Kerlin, but have crucially retained the services of Stefan Zecevic who has been a powerhouse for the team in recent years.
Looking ahead to the coming season, Éanna Head Coach Darren McGovern said “The Super League is split into two conferences, North and South and you have to finish as a top-three team to reach the play-offs
“Even getting there is a challenge, because we’ve to play the likes of Templeogue, UCD, Killester, Belfast Star, Vincent’s. That’s a really strong group. You’re playing Dublin derbies every week bar Belfest.
“But I definitely think we’ve solidified ourselves over the past couple of years. Just taking the next step is what we need to do now.
“It looked like we were going to have a really good season last year, but it was taken away from us, but this season is a big massive unknown.
“Teams could be two injuries away from being relegated or they could be no injuries away from winning the league.”
For Abbey Seals Dublin Lions Head Coach, Erin Bracken, Saturday marks the start of an exciting new chapter in her coaching career as she leads the Clondalkin outfit into a Men’s National League Division One match for the first time.
Taking over as Head Coach from Rob White, to whom she was previously assistant coach before their relegation from the Super League, Bracken will be hoping to see her team hit the ground running when they travel to Ulster University Tigers for their league opener.
“I’m really excited” she said. “It’s been a year and a half since I’ve even coached a competitive game and that was an underage game.
“Now, you’re in one of the top leagues, playing against some of the best players in the country and coming up against some other very good coaches. I just can’t wait to get going.
“I just feel that we’ll get better as the season goes on. So will every team you’d imagine. Our goal is to peak by play-offs.
“We’ve gone down the route of not bringing in a professional. We’ve no American or [foreign] European.
“Most teams have brought in at least one if not more, but we’ve got all Irish guys, many of them local enough.
“Finn Hughes, who had been playing for us the before and had gone to Lanzarote, is back with us now.
“We have another guard back with us as well, Kevin Anyanwu who had played in the States for a few years.
“Those additions have helped a lot and we haven’t really lost anybody from the previous year. We’ve kept the core group of them.
“We’re very young and raw still, but we’re hoping to draw on the experience of having played a year in the Super League when we play National League” she insisted.
Griffith College Templeogue will also be fielding a team in the Women’s National League Division One, their curtain raiser seeing them make the trip to Ulster University on Saturday.
It’s a tough opener for Mark Byrne’s outfit, made all the more interesting by the fact that they have also been drawn against the same opposition in the first round of the National Cup.
Still the Reds have been bolstered by the arrival of Jah Lea Ellis from New York and Akeema Richards from Baltimore as well as the return of forward Siobhan O’Neill.
“I’m delighted with the way the team has been going, but you never really know until you test yourself in the first few league games and the first one we’ve got probably couldn’t have been tougher- away up in Belfast” admitted Byrne.
“But look, we’ve played four Super League teams in pre-season, won two and lost two, so that’s hopefully a good sign, but you don’t know until you get into the thick of battle.
“Even the recruitment of Americans was really tough because most colleges offered an extra year of eligibility to stay in college in the States, so that meant there was very few thinking of moving over to Europe.
“And with that added uncertainty around Covid, it made the pool even smaller, so recruitment was very tough.
“Also, even the Irish girls haven’t played properly for a year, in some cases it’s been 18 months since their last competitive game, so it’s going to take a few games to really know where we’re at’ he said.