Club Focus: Ulster University Tigers
October 25, 2020
Ulster University Tigers were formed through an amalgamation of Andersonstown Tigers Basketball Club and Ulster University Elks. They have 21 sides from Under 8's to senior National League. Patrick O'Neill is head coach of Ulster University in Women's Division One, while Ryan McCormick is in charge of the men's side, also competing in Division One. We caught up with both coaches.
Q: Tell us about how the club came about and when was it formed?
“Ulster University Tigers was formed in 2019 through an agreed amalgamation between Andersonstown Tigers, a large successful community club, based in west Belfast and Ulster University Elks. Now the club has a Kubs section for primary aged children, with boys and girls teams from U8 through to U20, as well as senior men and women who play at local and National League level. Andersonstown Tigers Basketball Club was established in 1996 with Clare Callaghan Hegarty and John Hegarty. They started off with seven teams, training between a small community hall with portable baskets and Andersonstown Leisure Centre. The club grew quickly, eventually entering teams at every junior age group and also men’s and women’s teams. The club achieved Gold Clubmark status through Belfast City Council, which acknowledges standards met in Effective Management, Quality Coaching and Competition and Safety in Sport. Tigers continued to grow through their coaching partnerships with local schools.
Ulster University Elks was founded in 1984, but its predecessor on the Jordanstown campus, the Ulster Polytechnic, was a basketball powerhouse in collegiate terms. Basketball has always been a focus sport at UU, not least because of the quality of some of the players that have come through its ranks, including Irish Internationals John Kennedy (RIP), Paul Kennedy, Rocky Cairns, Gareth Maguire, Adrian Fulton and more recently the Quinn twins, Conor and Aidan, with Keelan Cairns and Matty Rooney. On the women’s front we have had Deirdre Brennan, Catriona O’Sullivan and Emer Howard wear the green jersey and more recently the Maguire sisters, Anna, Enya and Erin, Abigail Rafferty, Alex Mulligan, as well as Aoife Callaghan.
We wouldn’t be able to represent our local communities or compete at National League level without the help of our two main sponsors; Ulster University and Sport Changes Life.
With Ulster University expanding their Belfast city campus and the academic schools moving from Jordanstown, it made sense to formalise the existing great relationship between Tigers and Elks. As with many of the clubs competing at National League level, the Sport Changes Life’s Victory Scholar programme gives us access to fantastic NCAA athletes, who coach within our junior section, as well as play with our senior sides.”
Q: When did the men’s and women’s teams join the National League?
“The men first joined the National League in 2004, before spending four years in the Super League (2006-2010) and then returning to National League again. We had a hiatus for four years before re-entering National League Division 1 in 2015. It was in 2016 that we felt that we had to provide an avenue for our young female talent ourselves and thankfully our application to enter the women’s Division One National League was accepted.”
Q: Patrick we'll start with you, how does a man from Waterville in Kerry end up in Belfast coaching with Ulster University, what has been your career path to get here?
“Club basketball started for me when I was 15, I used to hitchhike 100 miles every weekend to get up to Killarney and play with St Paul’s BC. Paul Sheehan and Breda O’Neill, along with the whole club, gave my best friend Aoghan and myself such a welcome that it cemented that basketball was the sport for me. I then moved to college in Galway and after playing with Maree BC, I was involved with Joe Coughlan and some great players and coaches in getting Titans BC started. Titans filled the gap that existed in Galway city, to provide a pathway for National League and equally opportunities for kids in some of the disadvantaged areas to experience what a great sport basketball is. In 2010, I met Deirdre Brennan and Gareth Maguire at the Intervarsity’s and following on from that, I was offered the opportunity to come to Belfast and assist Deirdre with the men’s Super League team, I have been here since.
Q: You mention you were one of founding members of Titans basketball, how much of a wrench was it to leave the club to move to Ulster University?
“It was very difficult; they were my basketball family and to this day some of my best friends. The impact that club, and in fairness most of the clubs in the country, have in their local communities is often overlooked by those outside the basketball community. But it has led me to get involved in not only coaching, but also now my role in basketball development with Ulster University and Basketball Ireland. As I say, my basketball family has only grown since I came North.”
Q: Deirdre Brennan was a major factor in coaxing you to join the club, sum up the contribution she and husband Gareth Maguire have made to basketball in the local area and beyond?
“Deirdre has been instrumental in basketball being a high-performance sport here at the university, as well as having led the BNI girl’s academy for a number of years. She is a role model and mentor to many, having been one of the first women to coach at the men’s Super League level and a very strong advocate for women in sport. Deirdre has been coaching the junior sides in the club and is the reason we are lucky enough to have developed some great young talent, that is performing at National League level for us. Gareth, lives and breathes basketball – is one of the most capped Irish internationals and co-founder and CEO of Sport Changes Life. Gareth has been coaching the U20 men with head coach Mike Calo the last couple of years after an illustrious playing career with Star of the Sea and Ulster Elks. Gareth is also the main drivers behind the Belfast Classic, which has seen NCAA Division One teams compete here in Belfast.”
Q: Deirdre is now your assistant coach, it must be nice being able to brainstorm with someone with the depth of knowledge that she has of the game?
“It was one of the main reasons I came to Belfast, my respect for Deirdre started when I saw her at some of the national coaching conferences and her philosophy resonated with me. It is a privilege to work with her and we complement each other’s coaching styles extremely well. She is much more than a fellow coach, she really is one of my mentors.”
Q: The women’s team has recruited some overseas talent in Shannon Ryan, Lexi Posset and Paulina Lyska, tell us about them and what kind of impact do you expect them to make?
“Lexi was a Victory Scholar and played with us last year, having graduated from Rider University. Unfortunately she suffered a serious injury in the last game of the season, but she is well on the road to recovery and hopes to be back on court at some stage this season. Shannon just graduated from Saint Anselms College and is following in her brother’s footsteps, as he played for Titans a few years ago. Shannon is an all-American and will bring that high skill and work ethic that we are used to seeing from Sport Change’s Life’s Victory Scholars. We have been very fortunate in finding Paulina, she’s actually been living here in Belfast for the last four years, having playing in the Polish National Leagues when she was younger, but decided to get back into basketball and reached out earlier in the summer.”
Q: I understand there is another addition on the cards too?
“Yes, we are waiting on final word, but we are hoping to have another Victory Scholar come join us from the United States. Rachel Thompson played for Colgate University and is coming off the back of numerous Patriot League honours in her senior year. She will add another dimension to us and we hope to see her soon.”
Q: Obviously the National League season has been put on hold for the time being, but what would be the women’s team’s targets this season, is promotion achievable?
“Yes, I definitely think so. With a mix of some really good young Irish Internationals and now having been in the National League for four years now, we have a deep squad and are looking to build on the last two years top three finishes in the league.”
Q: We obviously can’t escape the impact of Covid-19, what has the recent restrictions in Northern Ireland meant for the team?
“It is very tough for all the teams currently; you are trying to get the team ready to play safely in a unique situation with restrictions and constantly moving government guidelines. We also have to ensure we follow Northern Ireland’s guidelines, as well as Basketball Ireland’s. Basketball Northern Ireland - and in particular Marc Mulholland - have been a great support in ensuring that we are complying with the NI restrictions. This does mean however we have no team training, but are able to do one-on-one individual training. I have to say the ladies are really taking it all in their stride and while disappointed in not being able to get playing last week, we have re-focused on skill development and looking to get on court as soon as we are allowed.”
Q: Ryan you’re in your second season as head coach of the men’s team, describe the impact Covid-19 has made on you day-to-day as a coach over the last few months, as you prepared for the season?
“Yes, this is my second season with Ulster University. Year one to year two has been day and night. Last summer we were spoiled with pre-season tournaments, tons of competition on court and the social aspect of being part of a team. Everything was very much focused on what happens between the lines. This summer the preparation has been very different. When the first lockdown hit I moved out of Belfast to rural Fermanagh, so the drive to training alone has gotten a lot longer! It has worked out nicely though, as any of the face-to-face meetings I would have previously had all take place over the phone now. As any of my players would tell you, I'm fond of a few phone calls on that 90-minute drive! The biggest change for me personally is taking on the role of Covid-19 officer for the club. Trying to keep up-to-date with the government guidelines, ensuring our protocols are sufficient for the safety of our players, and helping to get the junior teams back on court has been a huge task. Obviously practices have looked a lot different, with temperature guns, limited interaction and social distancing. The preparation for this season was definitely more focused on what happens outside the lines of the court, luckily I have two excellent assistants in Ciara O'Neill and Stephen Crothers to help take care of the rest.”
Q: Let’s hear a bit about you. You spent three years as an assistant coach with Richmond Knights and a half season as head coach after being thrown in at the deep end midway through a season when there was a departure, how has that experience in England helped shape you as a head coach?
“Getting involved with Richmond Knights was one of the biggest steps in my development. It threw me outside of my comfort zone and forced me to interact with a new community that was a complete unknown to me. I made friends and relationships that are as rich today as they were when I lived in London. It has made me better at understanding people, communicating, and building relationships. These are the most important parts of coaching for me.”
Q: What was the biggest lesson (or lessons!) you learned coaching over in England?
“The biggest thing I've taken away from my time at Knights is about connecting with people. I was fortunate enough to work with some fantastic coaches that taught me the importance of a healthy working relationship between players, coaches and management. The old saying "no one cares about how much you know, until they know how much you care" might be a cliché, but it's the best piece of coaching advice I have ever received. Knights also taught me the importance of development within a club. Last season we had one of the youngest starting lineups in Division 1. This season we have a group of six U20’s that train with our senior team, with the view that they will develop into the body of the senior squad in the years to come. This is one of the big benefits of the amalgamation of UU and Tigers, offering our young players a chance to progress up the talent pathway.
Q: How different is the style of play at National League level in England compared to here and what style of play do you like to adopt?
“The biggest difference is an obvious one, athleticism. I was the assistant for our U16’s in my last year at Knights, and almost all of our players could dunk. Fast forward to today and we might only have two or three senior players that are dunking in the warm up! I believe in playing to suit the strengths of your team. Last year we had two incredible Victory Scholars, so our style of play was designed around getting the most out of them during their time here. This season we have a much more balanced approach on offense, and will be looking for everyone to contribute, and for new leaders to step up!”
Q: You’ve not recruited from abroad for this season, instead Conall McQuiaid (Tryone Towers), Charlie McKinney (LYIT Donegal/Omagh Thunder) and Joe Burns (Queens BC) have been added to your squad, is that a conscious decision by you to focus on recruiting local talent?
“When I joined Ulster University I had a few clear goals. One of them was to offer the opportunity for local players to take the step up in competition. There are a lot of talented players in the North that aren't already playing at a National League level, and giving them the opportunity can only help basketball across the North to improve in quality.”
Q: And finally, when the season does eventually get underway, what are your targets, is promotion to the Super League on your radar?
“Our focus is around continuous development and improvement. With our profile of youth and local talent we have to prioritise becoming better players, coaches and a better team, so this is where we hang our hats. As a team, we like to call it being process orientated. We're trying to enjoy the journey just as much as we hope to one day enjoy the destination!”