It’s a Friday night and most of Ireland is glued to their televisions watching Katie Taylor have her first fight since winning gold in London. Another Olympian is in action that night in Waterford but she doesn’t draw the same public interest. Emmet Ryan headed south to meet the most dominant force in Irish Basketball, Rachael Vanderwal.
The Huskies look a class apart in terms of organisation on both ends of the floor. On offence, there’s a fundamental understanding of where players are going to be. Michelle Fahy dropped a blind pass to Vanderwal, she sends a perfectly placed pass to Aoife McDermott and she drives for the lay-up. Next time up the floor, it’s Vanderwal to Rachel Clancy, to Fahy, and McDermott again with the finish. Timeout Wildcats, trailing 13-3 after 5.08 of action. Defensively it’s the same. Offensive boards don’t come cheap. It’s like the UL players know where the shot is coming from every time. Cathy Kavanagh’s strength inside is the only relief for WIT but her physique is no match for the numbers game. As ever, Rachael Vanderwal is playing every second. It’s been a long time since she sat. “I can’t recall having a break. It was probably the summer,” she says.
Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, Vanderwal was a multi-sport athlete in school, playing Ice Hockey up to 18 and was a figure skater in her youth. “Growing up in Canada all we thought about was Ice Hockey, Figure Skating, and [other] winter sports. It was only by luck I went out for the Basketball team. My best friend’s dad was coaching. I hated it, didn’t like it at all. I kept going because she was going and I realised that I was actually kinda good,” says Vanderwal.
“Our club team was taken over to the States every summer, I got recruited. Boston [University] came to Hamilton and watched my high school games.”
The move south wouldn’t be the last time the Canadian went far from home but it was her first big move. “It was tough because all my friends were staying at home. For me to be going, and to be going to a different country, it was definitely a big thing but I always had it in my head as a kid that I wanted to play Basketball at the best level.”
In Waterford there’s no question the Huskies are on top on this night. Trailing by 15 early in the second frame, WIT’s coach Tommy O’Mahony is pleading with the officials but they are the least of his worries. McDermott again, using her athleticism to glide over Kavanagh but her lay-up is off the rim. Her road to Mercy College this evening was anything but direct. Playing in the Atlantic East with BU’s Terriers, Vanderwal played in the NCAA Tournament as a freshman. “To make it your first year, it was amazing. Winning the tournament and making it to the NCAAs. We were a 16th seed and we had to play the number 1 team and the number 1 team in the country was UConn. That hadn’t lost in two years, that was like their dream team,” she says.
“We played at UConn, at their place, packed. First round on ESPN, in front of like 8,000 fans. They turned it off at half-time but like where are you going to get that experience? It was amazing.”
That would be her one shining moment in March Madness, with the Terriers losing in the conference tournament final in each of her other three years in Boston. “Every year we were that close. We knew they were beatable. They were better in the playoffs and always seemed to beat us in the crucial games,” says Vanderwal. “My senior year was particularly tough but at the end of the day, someone wins and someone loses.”
Eager to keep playing after finishing college, Vanderwal started putting out feelers. Her coach in Boston, Chip Greenberg, had a brother who played in Ireland and from there her journey in Irish hoops took off. “One guy from Ireland, John Glavin from Donoughmore, asked if I wanted to come over and I figured sure I might as well.” While the phrase is oh so Irish, the accent remains undeniably Canadian.
“Coming from a big city, Hamilton, and then another big city, Boston and then to Cork” she pauses “It is a nice city but it’s a lot smaller.”
Despite having to adjust, Vanderwal quickly grew fond of life on Leeside. “I loved it straight away. The people in Cork are on another level, they’re so friendly,” she says.
While in Cork she went to Cork Institute of Technology for postgraduate study. CIT convinced her to play varsities but even an all-everything point guard by Irish standards couldn’t save them. “I played but we were terrible.” The college experience in Ireland helped her take the next step and develop deep roots in the Emerald Isle. “I knew I’d be bored if I wasn’t working so I started teaching. I found a school, North Presentation Secondary.” She’s been there ever since although her Basketball career has strayed further afield.
Vanderwal spent her first two seasons playing in Division 1, the second tier in Ireland, with Donoughmore. Having won everything those two years they were made go up to Superleague. Donoughmore however couldn’t commit financially so a group of players from the team financed it themselves. Iona and took them under for a year but Vanderwal was eager for stability.
“After my year at Iona I didn’t know where I was going to play. Mark Scannell approached me about playing in Cork and then James [Weldon] took the job at UL and I was friends with him beforehand. Why don’t you come and see how you get on in Limerick. Two of the girls decided to go with me and that made it much easier,” she says. “It’s a bit tougher this year with the commute, as I’m the only one making it now, but to be honest I don’t think about it much. 6 o’clock I’m in the car, I’m gone, home at 11.”
On the court Vanderwal’s headband makes her easy to spot. Up close, it’s hard not to spot a scar beside her left eye, an off-court souvenir of life in Ireland. “I was mountain biking in Ballyhoura, on the Cork-Tipperary border. We came up to a man-made bridge and I was the first one there. I was worried but Maedbh behind me went ‘No Rach you’ll be fine’. It was like a 7-foot drop, the momentum just took me and I smashed off the rocks,” says Vanderwal. The injury came out of season so her coaches weren’t concerned but one person was less than impressed. “I actually texted my mom the picture of the open gash. I was so proud of it but my mom was like ‘I’m coming on the next flight’.”
Back in Mercy, just before the second half gets under way, the PA singles out Vanderwal for her playing with Great Britain in the Olympics. She’s slightly embarrassed but the crowd, of about 100, gives her a rousing applause. Then comes the surreal moment. Vanderwal makes presentations to three local players who have appeared for Irish underage teams. The last of whom, Aoife Brett, is suited up against her that night. The pair share a warm embrace but within seconds they must be rivals again.
Despite her proud Canadian heritage Vanderwal represented her mother Miriam’s homeland, at London 2012. “I never got to the national level growing up. When I moved to Boston I was there every summer and the national team try-outs were held then so I never got a chance to try out,” she says. “I got my British passport the second year I was here for working reasons. James said ‘why don’t you approach GB and try out there?’”
The experience was quite different to what she was used to in Limerick. “If anyone has ever been to the Europeans, the standard of Basketball is unreal; you’re going up against these 6′7” post players that can jack the three.” For comparison’s sake, the tallest player on court in Waterford that night was Aoife McDermott, 6′1”.
“It’s a whole other level. That was my first ever big tournament in international Basketball,” says Vanderwal. “We made it to the second round. We were beating Russia by 10 with 5 minutes to go. They came back and beat us by 1. If we had won, we’d have probably made the quarter-finals.”
While logging heavy minutes with the Huskies, Vanderwal’s role at international level is more situational. Still, in the opening game of the Olympics, she got the chance to make an impression and log heavy minutes. “I was second point-guard, coming off the bench. The starting point guard got injured within like 10 seconds of our first game. I got straight on, played that whole match; it was one of my best games ever in a GB uniform. I was joint lead-scorer.”
Her joy would be short-lived. Next on the docket was Canada, the dream match-up for Vanderwal. She didn’t get off the bench. “Going into the Canada match I was confident but he [coach] kinda just forgot about me, got caught up in the whole thing,” she says. “He apologised after the game. It was heart-breaking because I wanted to play in that game. Everyone at home was watching.”
On this night in Mercy, there’s no fear of Vanderwal missing a second. The Huskies offence comes out stone cold in the second half, despite spending the almost the entire intermission doing warm-ups. Weldon is in Vanderwal’s ear at most stoppages, calling her back to issue instructions. An early run by WIT cuts the deficit but they still trail by 9 entering the final frame. Fahy gets angry driving for a lay-up upon the resumption, the frustration of the third quarter clearly showing. The lead goes back to 13 and then, with 4.34 to go, Kathryn Fahy forces a turnover and drives for a lay-up but is fouled hard by Terran Condrey. She gets up but sits the rest of the game.
As I speak to Vanderwal, we’re interrupted by Presentation Wexford schoolgirls, at their first ever game, looking for her to sign balls, t-shirts, and bits of paper. She’s sure to thank them all individually for coming. One thinks her accent is amazing, Vanderwal insists her accent is a bit Cork now. Nobody else can spot it.
“We want to get them into the games and getting excited. A lot of people enjoy women’s Basketball in this country; they say they enjoy it over the men. We want to draw the crowds,” says Vanderwal. This is no short-term plan. Vanderwal is in Ireland, and Irish Basketball, for the long-haul. “I’m happy here; I’m kind of settled here. It’s my second home, having been here seven years I’ve loved every minute of it,” she says.
“Our underage structure is very good. The schools level is brilliant. If we can get the [senior] national teams going again it would be a big difference. We’ve got the Under 16s, the Under 18s, where I’m coaching with James, going,” says Vanderwal.
“It’s tough when you don’t have one team. A senior national team would be a big focus for the country. Hopefully the funding will be there in the next couple of years to put a team together.”
In the fourth quarter the deficit is slowly narrowing, not quickly enough for WIT to mount a comeback. Weldon is chatting to Vanderwal with increasing regularity now. The result may be clear but she stays in, as always, for the duration. The regular season title is minutes away. Full time. UL takes the win 68-61 and with it top seeding in the playoffs. The schoolkids do the Harlem Shake for the players. 15 minutes later, Katie Taylor enters the ring in Dublin for her first fight since winning gold in London. Vanderwal will be happy with the sandwiches in Mercy College.
Check out our full album of images from the UL Huskies trip to the WIT Wildcats.
Follow Emmet Ryan on Twitter.