Tolan hoping to lead the Eagles to new heights
Paul Fitzpatrick caught up with Ciara Tolan, captain of the Cavan Eagles side who enter the National League play-offs this weekend as the number one-ranked team in the competition.
Like a start-up business, East Cavan Eagles have been building their brand for over a decade now, forging relationships, growing at a sustainable rate.
Then, a couple of years back, they mooted an expansion – a regional product was going national. A round of funding was required, with McEvoy’s SuperValu lead investors. A new HQ was sourced, outside expertise was drafted in to augment the home-grown talent. The launch arrived this year and, so far, the success has exceeded their forecasts.
When the Eagles ladies team defeated a crack St Paul’s, Killarney side at the Show Centre in Virginia before 700 fans a couple of weeks ago, there was a sense that they had reached a tipping point. The club is well established, bursting at the seams with 600 members, who operate out of two facilities in Virginia, one in Killinkere and one in Mullagh, but capturing the imagination of the local sporting public in a way no code outside of Gaelic games has managed was always going to be the acid test.
Ahead of the National League play-offs, the Eagles sit top of the table with a 16-2 record, and captain Ciara Tolan finally got a chance to draw breath and take stock.
“I don’t think any of us thought we’d be table-toppers, it’s a really good position for us,” Tolan told the Anglo-Celt last Thursday.
“We’re looking forward to the next two or three weeks of training. We are playing against second or third place, whoever wins that, and the following week we’re playing in the Arena so hopefully everything goes well in the next three weeks.”
The 21-year-old, a third year Physiotherapy student in UCD, started playing basketball as a nine-year-old in Killinkere. By the age of 15, she was beginning to force her way on to regional and then Irish squads; at U18 level, she represented Ireland at the European Championships in Macedonia.
Tolan was part of a generation of Eagles who were beginning to blaze a trail but entering a team in the National League was still a bold step.
“We played in the local league here and the North-East League. Last year we decided to make the step up to the National League and now we’re here at the top of the league, it’s kind of hard to believe but it’s brilliant.
“Dad (club chairman Graham) mentioned it two years ago and me, Niamh and Emma (sisters and teammates) were kind of like ‘oh, I don’t know’. Not that we wouldn’t be able but we’d be competing against teams from Dublin and Cork, where basketball is their first sport and they’d have coaches from America, coaches from Dublin. But as soon as we got training, we knew we had quite a good team.
“We have a really good combination with the American girls, one Spanish girl and five of us who have represented Ireland as well so it’s great mixture of players.”
The step-up required recruitment. Americans Alarie Mayze and Carnethia Brown, former Division 1 college players, were brought in along with Spaniard Eli Lopez Sagrera. Dave Baker, a coach with vast experience, took over the side, assisted by club stalwart Carol Verschoyle.
Casey Mulvey, a former stand-out underage player and another international, opted to take time out from her athletics scholarship in Chicago and was a late arrival to the fold, an unexpected but very welcome bonus on the eve of tip-off.
While Brown has returned to the US due to her VISA expiring, she has been replaced by another quality American in Imani Dixon. Along with the outstanding local players such as the Tolan sisters, Ciara Brady et al, the roster soon had a serious depth of talent to it.
“The starting five has changed a few times throughout the year but it’s usually two post players, they’re the taller, stronger girls, under the basket,” Ciara explained.
“That’s usually people like Eli, Casey Mulvey, who has played for Ireland as well and has done shot putt at a high level as well. And myself, I’m a post player as well.
“Then we have the guards, not faster but a bit more athletic, a bit smaller as well, usually good shooters. So we’d have my sisters Niamh and Emma, Ciara Brady who has been out injured for the past few weeks but will hopefully be back soon, and Alarie and Imani, our new girl, as well.
“We have a good mix of players. Jane Larkin was playing for Dunshaughlin when we played against them last year in the North East league. We also have Aislinn, Chloe and Amy and Caitlin Brady as well, there are 14 of us.
“The team is really close. I have played basketball with Chloe, Amy, Aislinn and Caitlin in school as well and to play with them for the club as well is really special. This is also the first year that me, Niamh and Emma have played for the same sports team, football or basketball, as well so it has been really nice and really special.”
Baker named Ciara as captain at the beginning of the season, an honour she didn’t see coming.
“I didn’t because I’m only 21 so I’m quite young. I have been captain of school teams before but never of a team like this competing on a national stage. I was a bit nervous but the girls all made it really easy, they are all natural leaders as well so they made my job a lot easier.
“My duties? I try to calm everyone down, I don’t get too agitated in games anyway. I try to keep everyone happy, everyone is easy to get along with so it’s fine.
“I play under the basket. Rebounding, shooting. Everyone has their own role and we stick to that.”
The Eagles pitched up in the second tier of the National League, uncharted territory. The gut feeling was they would be competitive but nobody predicted – not out loud, anyway – that they would cruise through the regular season.
“It’s really fun to play. We have never played at this level, it was fine playing in the North-East League but we were starting to beat teams by 30 or 40 points which was not going to improve us. It’s been really great playing against teams who are really strong.
“When we played Killarney, there was a girl who was 6ft 5 and she was so good, she was the best post player I’ve seen in Ireland. To play against people like that is brilliant and it can only improve us.”
The crowds have come out in force. For recent home games in the Show Centre, it has been standing room only. Outside of GAA, no sporting fixture in the county draws anywhere near the same crowds – and the Eagles have brought a strong following on the road, too, often out-numbering the home support.
“When you’re on the court, you can hear everyone but you really realise it when you look at the pictures after and you say ‘oh my God, there is no room to move!’. In the local league last year, we would have been so thankful to even get 50 people to our games in the school. This year it has been so helpful and encouraging on the court to have such support, to see everyone coming out.
“And even to see the kids coming up to the team after and asking for autographs and photographs, it’s motivating. And it’s good for them too to see that level, hopefully all those little girls and boys can get to that level one day for this club as well.”
In ways, Mayze is the star attraction, the ‘franchise’ player. When the team is introduced by announcer Martin Flynn before each match, she is last to jog to centre-court. It’s all part of the razzmatazz which sells the game.
And the Louisville woman has delivered, wowing the supporters with amazing skills and a warm personality. While it’s a team game, Tolan is aware of the importance of real starpower in winning over the casual sports fans.
“She’s so good. When we played Templeogue maybe two months, she came on in the last 10 seconds to score a basket to win it for us. The same against St Paul’s, she scored the equaliser. She’s so special and encouraging. She coaches in three primary schools around here and for the kids to see her and look up to her, it’s really great to have her.”
There is a school of thought that suggests the Eagles would be better off not gaining promotion to the Super League this year. It would require more investment, for one thing, and resources can only go so far. There is the possibility, though, that they could win the championship and apply to remain in this division; consolidating, building on this year’s foundation, would probably be the sensible route.
That is a discussion they hope to be having in a few weeks’ time. For now, the focus is on finishing the job.
“The hard work starts now. We had a bit of a blip last week against Limerick, we lost by 10 points down there. It wasn’t that we were complacent but we knew we were top of the league and we were thinking about the play-offs.
“We had a three-and-a-half hour bus journey as well so we were a bit tired when we got on the court but Limerick, in fairness, did put it up to us so they are a team we have to watch out for in the play-offs.
“Hopefully it was just a once-off and we have got the bad game out of the way. We were disappointed after the game but at training we got together and said at least it’s out of the way and we know we have a lot to improve on, we can’t ever take a game for granted so now we have to put the heads down for the next two or three weeks.”
The season splits in two at this point, with separate trophies up for grabs. The first competition is the outright championship, for promotion.
The Eagles play the winners of the Southern Conference, Portlaoise, in that this Saturday in the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght in the semi-final; the final is down for decision on Sunday.
Then, the following weekend, the League Cup play-offs come to Virginia. The quarter-finals and semi-finals take place on Saturday and Sunday in the Show Centre, with the final the following weekend in the National Basketball Arena.
A unique angle to the story is the presence of the three Tolans on the team.
All three are current or former internationals who have also excelled at ladies football, helping backbone the Lurgan ladies team who won the county SFC last year as well as numerous other successful club, county and schools sides.
“I don’t know how the girls do it, I’m not involved in county teams now but they literally have training every night. They’re really good girls, they do get tired but they love training. I think the football really helps with your athleticism and hand-eye co-ordination.
“Ciara Brady was our captain last year with Lurgan ladies when we won the championship, she’s playing county football now and it’s so good to have that mixture of both sports, it has helped us a lot.
“Hopefully this year we’ll be looking to wn the championship again with Lurgan, it was such a young team. The full-back line had two 15-year-olds, something crazy like that.
“Hopefully we do it again this year, there are so many girls who are so strong.
“What they have done with the school even in the last few months is crazy, two basketball All-Irelands and an All-Ireland semi-final in the football coming up.”
Of course, genetics plays a part too. Does the sisters’ sporting prowess come from mother Mary (née Sharkey), a member of the famed ‘Gunner’ sporting clan, or their Dad, Dublin native Graham?
Ciara laughs aloud at the question and picks her steps.
“I don’t know, I’ll have to say it comes from the Sharkey side but the height comes from Dad! So a mixture of both,” she smiled.
“It (the family influence) really important. We’re all so competitive, after the games there is always an hour or two debrief. Sometimes if you don’t play well it can be a bit brutal. Fergal the Gunner comes to all our games and he gives us a fairly honest opinion at the end of the game as well! It’s really good to have that competitiveness and always wanting to win.”
So far, so good on that front.