These are good times for basketball in Bantry with Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí’s run to an All-Ireland schools’ semi-final and the local club’s success at various levels. KIERAN McCARTHY tells the story
A COUPLE of weeks back, Mary Kelleher escaped the winter and found some sun in Lanzarote, where a conversation with a fellow holidaymaker turned to sport.
Without any prompting, Bantry football became the topic, then Bantry basketball.
Little did the sun-seeker know that sitting in front of him was the current chairperson of Bantry Basketball Club.
‘We were just chatting about sport, he was from up the country and he didn’t even know I was living in Bantry,’ Mary says, adding, ‘You’d hear a lot of stories about Bantry basketball from a long time ago, there’s a great tradition in the area.’
Bantry is one of the few bastions of basketball in West Cork, along with Skibbereen, and a snippet in The Southern Star archives recalls when Bantry won its first-ever county basketball trophy when they beat Midleton 24-19 in the 1965 junior league final at Ford’s outdoor court in Cork.
Fifty-two years later, Bantry is still winning county titles, the latest being the men’s Division 2 championship title just last month when they saw off Fr Mathews 67-65 in a dramatic climax. That was a huge boost for the club, showing all underage players that there’s an outlet and chance to play past U18.
Player-coach Craig Drummond sank the winning free throws that night and his assistant coach Pat Curran, club PRO, is also in charge of the Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí senior boys’ team in U19 Boys’ C All-Ireland semi-final action this Friday.
Between the club’s current success and the school’s run to the last four, Bantry basketball is making the headlines – and the two are closely interlinked.
‘They’re the best group I have ever coached,’ Curran says of his current U19 schools’ basketball team.
At the outset of this school year, this team felt this is their season and that they will never get a chance like this again.
They’re making the most of the opportunity.
The twin towers of Sean Brady and Liam Cotter, both standing over six feet tall, are strong on rebounds offensively and defensively. Kevin Clifford is very strong defensively and can grind the opposition down. John Enderson will shoot the lights out. Tom Flynn knows where the three-point line is. Captain Matthew Barry and Shane Murray are two key figures. Dylan Clifford is an accurate shooter. TJ Sullivan, Daniel Downey and Daniel O’Sullivan have come up from U16 to provide depth to a strong panel.
They’ve won their way through to the U19 C Boys’ semi-final against Mercy Ballymahon Longford in the National Basketball Arena this Friday, January 9th, at 1.15pm.
It’s the first time a boys’ basketball team from the school has ever advanced this far.
As well as the talent in this team, what’s been a big help is that the entire U19 school basketball team is also Bantry Basketball Club’s U18 team – apart from school captain Matthew Barry who is two days overage for the club team but still attends every training session.
‘I see them at least four times a week, that would be the minimum between morning and evening sessions,’ coach Curran explains.
He’s a PE teacher in Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí and has trained this particular group since they were in first year, while he took over the club team coaching from Mike Clifford – a stalwart of Bantry basketball – after he took them up to U16.
‘Mike built a fantastic foundation with them,’ he points out, ahead of their biggest test.
Mike Clifford was on the Bantry men’s team that won a senior men’s title in 1987, 31 years before the class of 2017/18 claimed county honours.
Clifford, Declan Hurley, Shane Hurley, Pat Driscoll, Tom Buckley and Barry Hourihane were the older, experienced heads, joined by Kevin Barry, Peter Haughney, James Cotter, James Keating, Tim Clffird and Stephen Donovan.
They beat CIE in the final at Neptune Stadium, a massive win for the club after a five-year absence when Bantry basketball ground to a halt.
It took a lot of hard work to get the club up and running again, which current club officers and coaches can relate to.
‘This is one of our best years in a long time,’ chairperson Mary Kelleher says.
‘The men’s team won their championship, as did the U14 boys, the U18 boys are unbeaten in the league, the U18 girls won their championship semi-final last Thursday night, the U14 girls are in a semi-final this week and all other teams are going quite well in their leagues.
‘The club has come a long way in the last few years, a lot of good coaches have come on board, there’s a lot of commitment from everyone involved.’
It’s taken a lot of dedication to provide Bantry’s basketball talent with the platform to shine. The talent is there but it’s the behind-the-scenes work by unsung heroes that makes the difference.
‘Six or seven years ago we had only one team in the league whereas now, I think, we have ten teams in league action, so that’s a big step forward,’ Mary says, with underage teams from U10 up to the men’s senior team.
‘The coaches who have come on board are all committed and enthusiastic and that has rubbed off on the teams too.’
One of those coaches is Craig Drummond, who moved to Bantry with his wife, and soon got involved as player-coach with the men’s team as well as underage teams.
Another coach is Mags Downey, who played for Ireland at international level, involved with some underage teams.
It goes way back to the Trojan work of Christy O’Neill, a man Pat Curran says kept basketball alive in the town.
‘There was always a great culture of basketball in Bantry,’ he says.
‘Christy O’Neill kept it going when I was a young fella. I played under Christy from when I was eight to 18, I’d say, along with a lot of my friends. Unfortunately back then there was no men’s team. Three or four years ago the men’s team started but it wasn’t as structured as it is this year and didn’t last long. But the men’s team came back this year and with the right structure and support, look what happened.’
Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí’s role in Bantry Basketball Club’s current success runs deep.
There’s the crossover of players but the school’s gym is also the club’s home court – and what a tremendous facility it is.
In the past, the club played home games in Dunmanway and for a time they even played home matches at the Parochial Hall in the city.
‘That was us giving up our home advantage and playing on an away court,’ Kelleher says, explaining, ‘the court at Bantry Boys’ Club is too small so that’s why the school has been a God-send.’
Pat Curran agrees.
‘The school has been brilliant for basketball in Bantry,’ he says.
‘All we had before was the boys’ club and you’re not allowed play basketball on it, it’s too small. But when the school opened in 2011, we started using the school’s court and it’s our home court for all games.
‘It’s a beautiful court, people feel comfortable going there, it’s the ideal setting and only for that, basketball in Bantry might be struggling.’
Instead, basketball is a hot topic in Bantry right now.
There’s a tradition in the area, just like in Skibb, and despite both clubs being outposts in the west and having to clock up the miles to travel to games, that hasn’t deterred either from achieving success on the hard courts.
And Bantry basketball isn’t finished yet.
Supporters’ buses will leave on Friday morning for the school’s All-Ireland semi-final, with a spot in the final up for grabs, similar to the feats of the school’s U19 girls’ team that reached the All-Ireland U19 C schools’ league final in 2015.
That day, Bantry lost to Dublin side Muckross Park School despite MVP Emma Cotter hitting 20 points, Niamh Cotter and Aoife Cotter combing for 13 more.
This year, the boys’ team are determined to go further and add another chapter to Bantry basketball’s recent resurgence.