Clare Rockall delighted to be back in her old Arena stomping ground
Guard is back from Iowa State and will face UL Huskies in women’s National Cup final
Claire Rockall of Team Montenotte has enjoyed great success since cutting short her basketball scholarship in Iowa to return to Ireland and go to college in Cork. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Things come full circle. When Claire Rockall coaches first year basketball at the Presentation convent in Thurles these days, her mind inevitably turns to the series of All-Ireland A finals which her school team, Calasanctius College in Oranmore, played against the Tipperary champions.
The schools met in league and cup showdowns in 2008, the Galway side triumphing in both, and the following September, Rockall found herself on the Great Plains, beginning a four-year basketball scholarship with Iowa State university.
She has crammed thousands of hours of basketball in since those school finals but tonight Rockall will be back in the National Arena, playing for Team Montenotte Hotel, the Glanmire club, against UL Huskies in a double bill National Cup final which has sold out.
“The Arena is definitely linked with the schools finals in terms of atmosphere and just the nerves we all felt the first time we played there,” she says. “The Neptune stadium comes close but I’ve always loved playing in the Arena.”
Glanmire are one of the great success stories of contemporary Irish basketball and their recruitment of Rockall was, in a roundabout way, Iowa’s loss.
Rockall grew up in Maree, a tiny community on the fringes of Oranmore, with an uncanny knack for turning out exceptional underage basketball sides.
Rockall shone as a youngster, featuring on Ireland sides from the age of 14 and excelling at the game, with her speed and attacking instinct combining well with a cool temperament.
Her potential led to the offer from Iowa and so she joined the rarefied club of Irish basketball players who have earned a division one basketball scholarship in the States.
Iowa could not be much more different that coastal Galway but Rockall had little time to consider where she had landed. Pre-season training lasted for eight weeks and started with 5.30am alarm calls.
“We were in the weights room Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5.45, followed by a track session at half seven,” she remembers.
“In the morning! Then classes. Then we trained for three hours. It was all extremely busy. I wasn’t home from August until the following May.”
She knew in a vague way that American college sport is a serious business but was nonetheless taken aback by the scale and extravagance once she entered the bubble.
“We played Big 12, which is a big division. It is crazy the amount of money that goes into sport in America. If we were more than a three-hour bus drive, we got a chartered flight for away games. So we would go the night before, stay in a fancy hotel, get all our meals paid for . . . crazy! But that is the way all colleges are over there.
“It felt like being a rock star, coming from Ireland to that scene. You get so much gear handed to you and all that. It was great, I really enjoyed it.”
Still, the game was different. Gone was the slashing, fast-moving game she had grown up with. The Iowa way was methodical basketball and the coaching staff wanted to transform Rockall into a pure shooting guard.
“I never felt three-point shooting was my greatest strength. So I knew I would have to adjust my style of play to fit into this team. And I wasn’t sure . . . I actually thought about transferring to another college there. And then in the back of my head, I always wanted to get an Irish college degree. So I decided to come back to UCC.”
After enrolling to study PE at UCC, she joined Glanmire and enjoyed immediate success as Team Montenotte won their third consecutive national cup.
She sat out last season following a cruciate ligament tear which required surgery, a setback which she says was tough to accept initially.
“After Christmas 2013 I could jog in a straight line and it was quite sore on my knee in the beginning. It was frustrating. I was in the Mardyke a lot on the bike and cross trainer.
“It was quite disheartening sometimes and when I went to Glanmire games, I just wanted to be playing the game.
“But just to be a PE teacher or do regular day-to-day things, I knew I had to stick it out and do the rehab. Each game I played I felt stronger and less conscious of it. I still wear a little brace on it but that is more for my head than my knee.”
She will wear it tonight in what she predicts will be a down-to-the-wire encounter against Glanmire’s inter-city rivals. Half of Glanmire will be decamping to Dublin this weekend as the club has three teams playing in the finals.
“Yeah, a lot of Cork people and its going to be a tough game for us. But it’s just good to be back playing the kind of basketball that I grew up with.”