'I had to go to America to realise that basketball isn't all that I am, even though I still love it...'

'I had to go to America to realise that basketball isn't all that I am, even though I still love it...'
ON HOME TURF: Edel Thornton of Trinity Meteors goes for a lay-up during the Hula Hoops Women's Division 1 National Cup semi-final at Parochial Hall. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

THE formula was very simple for Edel Thornton: she’d never lost a cup semi-final at the Parochial Hall and wasn’t about to start.

One of the most dynamic basketballers Cork has produced was back on familiar northside turf and gunning for glory again, after four seasons in the Division 1 college game in America. Now a Trinity Meteors player, her record was under threat when the Dublin team trailed in the first quarter.

That was before Thornton’s trademark guile and skill came to the fore as she made crucial plays at both ends of the court.

When the final buzzer sounded, Meteors were 14 points up and into the Division 1 women’s cup final.

So, five years since Thornton pulled on a Brunell singlet, she returns to the National Basketball Arena once more for the most important weekend in the season.

“Sure I can’t wait. Every basketballer in the country wants to be in Tallaght for the cup finals.”

The 23-year-old was once a teenage phenom who collected MVP baubles time and again, for St Vincent’s secondary school and Brunell, most memorably when, at 16, she was the marquee performer in both the U18 and U20 deciders.

A lay-up machine at that stage, Thornton concedes she’s a different player now. At Quinnipiac college, she added an outside shot and slotted into a more structured offence.

YOUNG GUN: Edel Thornton with St Vincent's school in 2012. Picture: Brian Lawless
YOUNG GUN: Edel Thornton with St Vincent's school in 2012. Picture: Brian Lawless

“I changed the way I played, definitely, but I had to. I couldn’t be throwing myself around like I did in Ireland. Being tough defined me, in a way, with Brunell and the school team, but the athleticism in the college game is incredible.

“You’re going into a team and coming up against basketballers who were all the main players in their hometowns. Everyone is at the same level, or better, than you were as a youngster.”

It’s a challenge for rising stars in every sport who make the step up with the elite.

“I was really focused on being a pro, that was always my goal from when I was 16 but then I learned what it was like. Basketball wouldn’t hold the same appeal to me if I had become a pro. I had to go to America to understand basketball isn’t who I am. I love it, absolutely love it, but I want my education too.”

Edel Thornton playing Stateside.
Edel Thornton playing Stateside.

That led her to Trinity College, pursuing her studies in behavioural psychology, instead of looking to make a career of her talent on the hardwood.

Thornton’s experience Stateside was positive though. The university made it all the way to the Sweet 16 stage of the prestigious March Madness and multiple trophies in their own conference during the four seasons.

Digna Strautmane, Edel Thornton, Claire Rockall and Paula Strautmane at the Shooting Stars basketball camp at Coláiste Choilm in Ballincollig. Picture: David Keane.
Digna Strautmane, Edel Thornton, Claire Rockall and Paula Strautmane at the Shooting Stars basketball camp at Coláiste Choilm in Ballincollig. Picture: David Keane.

Friendships were forged, with the likes of Latvian Paula Strautmane, Carly Fabbri, the daughter of Quinnipiac coach Tricia, and Brittany Martin. “We were inseparable... you’re playing together, going to classes, practising 25 hours a week. We’re all still in touch but it was tough leaving, definitely.”

A far cry from the homesickness and gruelling first few months she endured after initially departing Gurranabraher for Connecticut.

The youngest of four, growing up around Alan, Jason and Frank and with the support of parents Seán and Christine, Edel’s family gave her the strength to thrive across the Atlantic. 

Her father had a strong hurling connection with St Vincent's while her eldest brother Alan was a serious soccer player until injuries wore him down. As a primary school girl she did Irish dancing for her nan and dabbled in a bit of camogie.

Edel with her parents. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Edel with her parents. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Once she started bouncing a ball in the Parochiall Hall she never looked back.

Thornton was part of a golden generation of Brunell players along with Amy Waters, Aoife Dineen, Megan O'Leary and more who went from U12 upwards without losing a game on Leeside. 

"We'd a very good team, no doubt," she recalls, "but we were best friends too, all the way. That's why we won so much.

"You need talent but Kieran (O'Leary) our coach just had it instilled into us that we would always play for each other. We'd fight for every loose ball, keep going until the buzzer in every quarter. 

"We won a lot of games that way."

Edel Thornton on song in the National Basketball Arena, Tallaght. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Edel Thornton on song in the National Basketball Arena, Tallaght. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

They eclipsed their rivals on Leeside and went head to head with Glanmire in numerous National Cup finals. There were defeats but numerous victories too, with Thornton the MVP more often than not.

"We'd some fierce battles with Glanmire. Danielle (Megan's older sister) had taught us all about it!"

Edel Thornton, Brunell, in action against Sarah Kenny, Glanmire in 2013. Picture: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE
Edel Thornton, Brunell, in action against Sarah Kenny, Glanmire in 2013. Picture: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE

By the same token, respect was always there while the players often linked up in Cork and Irish squads.

"The Brunell years were the best ever, even if sometimes you'd feel so much pressure to do well in the big games."

If that was the case it never showed. Thornton lit up U18 Cup finals in 2012 and 2013, and the U20 grade in 2013, 2014 and 2015, despite not turning 18 until November '15.

Picture: Sportsfile
Picture: Sportsfile

Brunell coach Kieran O'Leary was a major influence and so too was Dommie Mullins, the legendary coaching guru in St Vincent's school.

"I'd always look up Dommie when I'm back in Cork. He was such a great coach and you never wanted to let him down."

With Vincent's there was an MVP showing in the top tier second-level U19 A decider and a trip to Cyprus in 2013.

Edel Thornton of Ireland in action against Christiana Menelaou of Cyprus. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Edel Thornton of Ireland in action against Christiana Menelaou of Cyprus. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The safe bet would have been to come back to Cork last summer.

“I wanted to combine education and basketball and it’s gone really well.

“Division 1 basketball isn’t the same as what I was used to but I get to the gym all the time, train hard, keep up my own standards. We’ve bonded as a team as well.

“That’s why we didn’t panic in the semi-final. We were down in Castleisland for a league game, against a tough team with a lot of GAA players, and ended up behind by 20 points but never stopped battling. That stood to us.”

So the scene is set for her to grab more headlines in Ireland.

As a teenager, she had basketball idols in LeBron James and Women’s NBA powerhouse Diana Taurasi (“I always related to her will-to-win”), but most of her heroes were local legends.

“I used to go the Hall to watch Rachael Vanderwal and Lyndsey Peat. They were amazing. I played against Lyndsey and she bullied me on the court. That’s what a winner she was though.

“The O’Reilly twins (Sinead and Orla) are fantastic too. Orla doesn’t get enough credit at all for what she’s done as a professional player from Cork.”

Representing Cork on foreign shores in style. Just like Thornton before her.

Brunell's joint captains Megan O'Leary, Edel Thornton and Amy Waters celebrate in Tallaght, 2015. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Brunell's joint captains Megan O'Leary, Edel Thornton and Amy Waters celebrate in Tallaght, 2015. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

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