COLÁISTE AILIGH are known for their ability to punch above their weight in sport, and recently they added to their impressive reputation with a fantastic triumph in Basketball.
The Irish-speaking secondary school shouldn’t be able to compete on a national scale due to their low numbers, but that disadvantage doesn’t hold them back.
In January, they tasted All-Ireland glory when they won the Under 16 ‘C’ Schools Cup with an emphatic 59-26 victory over Laurel Hill from Limerick.
It took a wonderful team performance to record that win, but the display from Shannon Ní Chuinneagáin should not be understated.
The 15-year-old posted 40 points in the final, and deservedly collected the Most Valuable Player award.
Shannon received another accolade this week when she was selected as the Donegal News Sports Star of the Month award winner for January, in conjunction with Brian McCormick Sports & Leisure.
“We only have around 260 people at the school, and you’re coming up against schools that have over a 1000. It’s difficult enough, but we have the talent to win,” said Shannon.
“All the girls on the team are so close and we want to win for each other.
“Everyone is so dedicated and we’re always at training, and people only miss it if they have to.”
A passion for basketball was instilled into the Letterkenny native from a young age.
She has risen up through the ranks, and has already represented her country in the sport.
“I started with Blaze basketball club when I was around five or six.
“I always enjoyed the training and then we started playing competitively at Under 12s, and we’ve just moved the whole way up.
“I’m Under 16 now, but I’ve also moved up an age group for the first time this year, so I’m with the Under 18s as well.
“It’s a good experience to play against girls older than you, and I think it brings you on.”
Shannon is full of praise for the training she has received at Blaze, and the coaching team at Coláiste Ailigh had the side primed and ready for every challenge that came their way.
“We train twice a week with the club team and then with the Under 18 team as well.
“Personally I would be training four times a week in total. Before the All-Ireland Final with the school, we were training once a week, and we were doing shooting practise during our lunchtimes.
“Linda McGuinness was coach of our school team that won and she was a great help, and Jay McMenamin was assistant coach with her. They put a lot of dedication in, as did Keith Cowan our teacher.
“Ian McKeever and Teresa Kealy coach the Under 18s with Blaze, and they have also been a big help to me and put in a lot of effort.”
Coláiste Ailigh didn’t make any bold proclamations or set any targets, but they knew they were capable of winning the All-Ireland if they performed.
They travelled to the final with confidence, but Ní Chuinneagáin admitted that the nerves started to kick in when they arrived at the National Basketball Arena.
“It’s not that we said ‘we have to win this’ but it was on everyone’s mind.
“For me personally, the goal was to win an All-Ireland because I never won the All-Ireland before.
“When we got to the stadium, there was already a game on – a boys ‘A’ Final – and the atmosphere was just crazy.
“That made all the girls nervous, especially me, but once I got through five minutes, I got into the game and I was fine then.
“You just block out all the noise, and you’re just on the court, and you don’t pay any attention to anything else.”
Coláiste Ailigh faced a difficult task in the final against a highly-rated Laurel Hill team, but they blew them away to get their hands on the silverware.
Shannon was the star performer as she scored a magnificent individual tally of 40 points in a game to remember.
However, she modestly played down her role in the triumph, and said the victory was due to hard work from every member of the squad.
“At the end of the day, the girls put in a huge amount of hard work to win the ball back in defence, and without them doing that, I wouldn’t be able to get the scores.
“Everyone played really well on the day, and it was a great team effort.”
There were scenes of joy when the game was over as parents and supporters rushed on to the court to join in with the celebrations. The team also received a rousing welcome when they returned to Letterkenny.
“The celebrations were great. We had a big cavalcade back to the school and we went driving around the town.
“There was a wee ceremony when we got back to the school and that was really nice.”
Not only is Shannon a brilliant Basketball player, but she also excels at Gaelic Football.
She represents St Eunan’s, and at the start of February, she helped the Under 20 Coláiste Ailigh team to Ulster glory, scoring 2-4 in the final.
That team were due to play an All-Ireland semi-final in Tuam yesterday (Thursday) and Shannon was hoping that there would be another big final to prepare for before the school year is out.
However, sport will have to take a back seat for a few weeks in June as she has state exams to sit.
“It can be hard to balance. We train once a week with the gaelic team and we put a lot of hard work into that as well, but you get it done.
“I’m doing my Junior Cert as well, so there’s a lot going on. You get in the door at four o’clock and you get the books out and just try to get it done before training.
“There’s a lot of running around to be done for my mum (Evelyn), and some nights you might have two trainings or three. My granda Jimmy runs me about the place a fair bit as well.
“It can be hectic but I love doing it.”