Fionnuala Toner reflects on ballin’ in the USA

This past summer, local basketball product Fionnuala Toner (who now plays point guard for the Ulster Rockets) returned from a year’s stint playing basketball for MacMurray College in Illinois. This was her second time around playing in the United States. TCC recently sat down with her to ask her about those experiences.

Toner at the recent ESPN Invitational Tournament

TCC: “In order to prepare yourself for playing in the States and now on a SuperLeague team, basketball must have been a big part of your life for a long time. How did you get interested in the sport in the first place?”

Fionnuala: “When I was four or five, my parents both played, and my dad coached. I also played netball. My sister and I play both sports. We still play netball together on the Northern Ireland senior team. It’s similar as a sport to basketball. But people would think I can only play netball, not basketball. Now, I would say basketball is my first sport. It’s a little different here than the states in that a lot more adults keep playing into a adulthood.”

Toner ballin’ at MacMurray (USA)

TCC: “Uprooting your life and moving across the world can be a scary and nerve-wracking thing. What made you want to do that?”

“I saw a girl above me go and settle into the Kent School, which is a prep school in Connecticut, so I was pretty familiar with the possibility. I actually followed in her footsteps originally by participating in the English-Speaking Union programme, which gave me a chance to attend the Kent School for a year, too.”

“I had also been to the States a lot with my family. We would go skiing in Vermont. My parents even lived in San Francisco for six months. I always wanted to live there for some period of time. We don’t really go to boarding schools here, so it was all new and a big adjustment. Eventually my little sister went over there to the Kent School and played, too.”

Toner during her time at Kent (front row: second from left)

TCC: “What were the hardest adjustments to make? And what were the differences between Connecticut and Illinois?”

Fionnuala: “Connecticut was very green, and the school was elite, kids of famous of people. MacMurray wasn’t like that at all. It was really small-town America, like a population of 19,000 people. The school only had 600 students, and I was the only international there. A lot of our players were from places that were even smaller. We were surrounded by cornfields; it seemed so tiny.

“When I first got to MacMurray, my idea of a school was the East Coast, so when I got placed, it was so small and when I got there, ‘I was like why am I here? What have I done? This is a bad idea.’ There was no one on campus. But I learned to love the place for its difference. We were so close-knit.”

TCC: “Being the only international there, did they make certain assumptions about you?”

Fionnuala: “I got asked questions like ‘How long did it take you to drive here?’ And ‘Do you speak English?’ “At Kent, they even put me in an ESL class to start, though thankfully I was able to convince them that I didn’t need it. Of course the typical stereotypes, too; they thought all we do is drink, that we don’t have advanced technology, that we just live in a bunch of rolling green hills.”


Ulster Rockets (F. Toner – front row, far right)

TCC: “How were the teams you played on?”

Fionnuala: “At Kent, we were undefeated and won the New England championship. At MacMurray, I think we finished fifth in the conference. It was only my coach’s second year in coaching, so everything was pretty transitional still. I wanted to go back and see what the difference would be, but I only needed one more year to finish here, it just made sense to get it done.”

TCC: “Did anything surprise you about the basketball there or was it what you expected?”

Fionnuala: “I liked the way seasons are set up with pre-season, then basketball, and then in the spring I could play something else, like lacrosse or golf. Here, we’re juggling and clashing multiple sports, so I liked only playing one sport at a time.”

TCC: What were some non-basketball highlights?”

Fionnuala: “I spent a New Years in New York City. The ball dropping in Times Square is something we all know about, but it happens at like 5 a.m. here, so it was something I really wanted to do, and it was timed pretty well because my brother got married here and then flew to New York for a honeymoon. In general, travel seemed so easy, so it was nice to get to the ski resorts and cities when I had time off.

“My parents were also able to make it over. At Mac, they came over for our last two regular season games in February. When I was at Kent, they were there for the playoffs.”

TCC: “Now that you’re back here, you’re playing basketball for the Rockets’ SuperLeague team. How’s the start of the season been so far?”

Fionnuala: “We’ve lost a couple games, but once we get everyone healthy and eligible, I think we’ll be pretty good after Christmas.”

TCC: “Thanks for your time, Fionnuala, and good luck the rest of the season!”



Chris Schumerth recently moved to Northern Ireland from the U.S. He is a native of the basketball-crazy state of Indiana. He's also a freelance writer who's been published by numerous publications, including the Miami Herald, Florida Times-Union, Relevant Magazine, and Comment Magazine.

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