Sunday is the biggest day in the calendar year for Irish women's basketball. Come Sunday evening, either Brunell or Killester will lift the Hula Hoops National Cup.
Few would have predicted this final pairing ahead of the semifinal round. Far more fancied was the club who had dominated the competition over the last fifteen years (Glanmire) and the stand-out club of the season (DCU Mercy). But here we are. Killester versus Brunell. What’s rare is beautiful, as they say.
The game will also feature two familiar faces of Irish basketball who few would have expected to see contesting a Cup final.
For Leah Rutherford (nee Westbrooks) of Killester and Sinead O'Reilly of Brunell, Sunday’s final will mean a little bit more.
The similarities between the two players are uncanny. Both players are in their early 30s. Both played Division 1 basketball in the US. Both players come from families steeped in basketball. Both players have returned to basketball this season after extended breaks from the game. Both players find themselves, unexpectedly and amazingly, up against each other in a Hula Hoops Cup final this weekend.
Rutherford has not just been away from Irish basketball. She's been away from Ireland full stop. After heading to the US to study and play for Mount St Mary's College, life took her to Africa, the UK and then to Houston, Texas for five years. She returned to Ireland last year with her husband. Not long after she was back in the black and orange of Killester. She could not ignore the call back to the club that was such a massive part of her family life.
“I love Killester. I have such a connection to the club. It's such a huge part of my underage development, even when I think back on all of those doubleheader weekends,” Leah says.
Basketball brought O'Reilly to Binghamton, New York, to play and to study. She decided to park basketball after returning home to Cork. She had a masters to focus on and the doctors said the prolapsed disc in her back couldn’t cope with the bruising basketball would dish out. Yet Brunell coach Tim O’Halloran was convinced Sinead could be swayed into a return, and slowly but surely talked her out of retirement ahead of this season..
Both women may have taken a break from the game, but basketball did not quit them. It remained a massive part of their identities even when they weren’t playing. Maybe that’s why both picked the game up relatively quickly again. It’s the advantage of coming from an Irish basketball family.
Leah, of course, comes from Irish basketball royalty. Her father Jerome has been a pioneering influence on Irish basketball since arriving over from the US in the 1980s. Her brothers Isaac and Michael have been stalwarts for Killester over the years.
“My dad's 61. He's playing D1. He gets up and down the floor like an 18-year-old. What am I? 31? I struggle a bit,” Leah says with a laugh.
Sinead’s sister Orla plays basketball professionally in Australia. Her two brothers Colin and Niall are famous players with UCC Demons. Naturally, there was a lot of excitement amongst her siblings when Sinead made her return.
“The family group chat has been hopping,” Sinead says. “My two brothers and my sister coached me through it. They were just saying to get to a certain level of fitness. It's a confidence thing really when you're gone for this long. You say to yourself, 'these girls have been training for those seven years that I've been missing. Can I step up to it? But you get there eventually.”
Learning the game again took time, and a toll on the body, but both players have settled into leadership roles on their respective teams.
‘I'm not my 19-year-old, 20 year-old self,’ Leah jokes. Sinead agrees.
‘The start of the season was quite shaky for me. I was in the physio twice a week. I was thinking this wouldn't work. But it's actually done the world of wonders for my back. I'm so thankful that Timmy reached out.’
Few had given Brunell a chance of beating DCU Mercy, the class of the Super League this season, in the semifinal. They’ll play in their second cup final in a row and will be stronger for it.
"They have a real taste for it now. They know what a cup final tastes like. My last cup final was maybe 12 years ago! The amount of preparation is the kind of thing you might not see, but so much goes on behind the scenes,’ Sinead says. ‘It’s nice to see that pay off.’
Killester came out tops in the game of the weekend, beating Glanmire in a heavyweight showdown, with each team trading blow for blow.
‘I was just delighted with the win and super proud of the girls for pulling it off. It was brilliant. It was also a really great advertisement for women’s basketball. They were some of the best games of the weekend,’ Leah says.
When they chose to return to basketball, neither Leah nor Sinead were motivated by the prospect of cup glory. For both of them, basketball is life. Sunday is bonus territory. Both have watched their own siblings on this same stage, either from the stands of the National Basketball Arena or on internet streams, and presumed their own chance to lift the Paudie O'Connor would never come to pass.
But now here they both are.
'I'm usually supporting Niall and Colin,” Sinead says. “I'm usually in the stands. It's a huge role reversal. And it's a really great feeling.”