Ulster Rockets

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!”


Paul Dick: Redshirtin’

Paul - Franklin Pierce Ravens

I promised The Courtside Collective ages ago that I would do a blog but I’ve been boycotting the site due to a lack of pictures of myself. However, I decided to put my ego aside only for the fact that I am going to get a free t-shirt out of it.

So, I’ve been back in the states now for about two months and it’s been a long & boring time. Waking up to go to 7.30am practices every morning is pretty dull; especially when I have to sit and watch it from the sideline. It’s not all bad though; my team is doing really well. On Tuesday, we won the conference regular season for the first time in the school’s history (along with the first winning season in 10 years). Finishing in last place in the conference the previous year, I don’t think anyone expected we would be in the position we are in now. In the most recent polls, we have been ranked #1 in our region for D2 basketball. There are only four regions in the whole of America so it’s mental that we have been rated so highly. This weekend the conference playoffs are starting, which is exciting because if [Editor: I think you meant to write, ‘when’] we win I get one of those shiny championship rings.

My rehab is going well. I’m forcing myself to take it slow and i’m definitely starting to see the benefits. I think that this is the first injury I’ve had that I haven’t rushed back from, and re-injured myself. The disappointment from making that mistake last year, which lead to me having to miss out on almost my entire freshman year, has disciplined me to pace myself. I hope to start practicing in the next two weeks but by that time we could be travelling all over the place chasing some more bling. I actually don’t know if ‘redshirts’ even get a ring if the team wins. Hopefully, I’ll be able to win my own one next year.

Asides from basketball, everything else is ridiculously boring. When I tell people where I go to school, the usual response I get is – ‘never heard of it.’ I’m not surprised because it must be the smallest school in America. Even on my busted feet, I could probably run around the whole campus in five minutes. Unfortunately, since i went home last semester, I have to stay here for summer school. So, I’m not going to be making it back to Belfast until August for a few weeks. I actually haven’t told my Mum this yet, so hopefully she doesn’t read this until i get a chance to tell her [Editor: Pretty sure, Coach Breda is a regular].

The Courtside Collective is definitely something I appreciate. It gives me a place where I can keep up-to-date with all that’s going on back home. I am sure we would all agree that the one thing the site is missing is a Mike Calo section but nothing’s perfect, right? I’m looking forward to seeing some more highlights of Belfast Star & Ulster Rockets getting a few more wins to finish the season!

Paul was the first player featured on The Courtside Collective; he is currently one of only two players from N.I. playing college basketball in the USA. Paul attends Franklin Pierce, a Division 2 school in New England, and is on a full scholarship. He has spent the past year as a ‘red-shirt’, missing out on an entire season due to a serious foot injury. We are happy to have Paul onboard as a regular contributor. 

Read Paul’s bio at Franklin Pierce

Playoff hopes diminish for Ulster Rockets

The  Ulster Rockets made the trip to Waterford on Saturday with the knowledge that a victory in the ‘sunny south-east’ would help the team’s playoff campaign. Wildcats played tremendous basketball early on with Cathy Kavanagh (21-points) and Niamh Mullaly (17-points) proving troublesome for the Rocket’s defence. Mairead McNally (22-points), captain of the Belfast-side, kept the spirits alive with some excellent long-range shooting (see highlights) and Eva McCrory (12 -points) contributed with composed finishes underneath the basket. The score was tied (55-a-piece) with a few minutes remaining in the game, thanks to some clutch shooting from Houlihan. However, Sinead Deegan (6-points), a well-seasoned point guard, sealed the win for Waterford after knocking down a pair of crucial freethrows in the final moments of the game.

The Waterford Wildcats pick up the win and the Rockets’ hope of making the playoffs has diminished as they enter the final stretch with tough games ahead against DCU, UL and Killester.


Ulster Rockets vs Waterford Wildcats Preview

Meghan Houlihan is currently the 3rd top scorer in the Irish women's league

Ulster Rockets have an important fixture this weekend against 6th placed Waterford Wildcats. It has been a challenging first season for the Belfast-side but the team hopes to make one last push for the playoffs, which includes the top 6 teams in the league. Rockets are coming off a win against Liffey Celtics (54-46) last weekend and will be looking to advance in the table with a victory. The Wildcats are also coming off a win on the road against Oblate Dynamos (60-49) and will also be aware of the importance of this game as the season draws to an end.

The Courtside Collective met with Meghan Houlihan from the Ulster Rockets. Houlihan works for PeacePlayers International in Belfast and is in her second playing with the Rockets. Houlihan is currently ranked as the third top scorer in the Irish women’s Superleague, averaging 16-points a game:

What are your team focusing on this weekend?

It’s a big game this weekend and both teams are going to be highly motivated as we compete for the last playoff spot. At this point in the season, we need to continue to work together, stay patient, move with purpose on offense, make good decisions in transition, and stay aggressive on defense.

Rockets currently sit at 7th place in the league, what is important in helping the team to secure the final playoff spot?

I think we’ve gotten better every game, and I think it’s important that we continue to improve until the final game of the season. It’s cliche, but in order to make the playoffs we’ll have to do all the little things – boxing out, diving for loose balls, setting good screens, and communicating on the court.

What has helped the team remain in playoff contention?

I know that a lot of people doubted whether or not we should move up to the SuperLeague this season and I think that motivated us. Regardless of where we finish, we’ve proven that we belong here. There is a very competitive basketball community in Northern Ireland and the girls on this team are very committed to becoming better players. Every single player on this team contributes to our success, and I am highly motivated by the girls that show up to practice every week and force me to work hard and improve my game.



Women’s League: Towers school QUB

QUB travelled to Tyrone on Sunday for their second meeting with Towers in the BNI women’s league. The Queen’s University squad were without Ulster Rockets star, Aisling Murray, and the team’s leading rebounder, Maggie Sinnot. Tyrone Towers are still awaiting the return of Caroline McGrath, after the starting guard suffered a dislocated finger during a home game against Lisburn ’94 . Lead by Ciara O’Neill at the point guard position, QUB kept the game close the entire 40-minutes however Towers remained composed and strong performances from Caoimhe Colgan and Justine Voitechovic helped spur the Tyrone side to a win.



For the latest results and standings in the BNI women’s league, click here.

Women’s league action

A-Town Tigers @ Lisburn / Wednesday 8th February

Lisburn currently boast a seasoned and talented squad with five players on the Ulster Rockets, Irish women’s superleague panel. Sinead Smye and Susie Dick were in form, knocking down long-range shots early. Helena Fairburn contributed with rebounding and was the backbone of the front-court defense for Lisburn. Seanna Moyes and the relentless Mairead Cooper played key roles in developing Lisburn’s massive lead early in the game.

Tigers, conversely, are comprised of a much younger and less experienced team. Veteran Joanne O’Neill lead the visiting team throughout the game showing great persistence and determination despite being blown-out by the league leaders. Equally as inspiring was the tenacious Toni Kane, who helped to keep the Tigers’ spirits alive with full-court pressure defence. The game was never close but Tigers did not let up the entire 40-minutes and should be credited for the efforts.

Final Score: Lisburn 80 – A-Town Tigers 36


UU Elks @ Queen’s / Thursday 9th February



These two teams have had tough seasons in a small-league consisting of 5 teams. Queen’s & Elks have struggled to pick up a win between them against any of the top three teams in the league (Lisburn, Tyrone Towers and QUB).

Elks boast Brid O’Hagan, a terrific athletic point guard who can score the ball while Queen’s rely heavily on the leadership of Orla O’Neil, a well-experienced point guard with excellent vision of the floor and understanding of the game. Queen’s, however, present a deeper front-court, with forwards Charlie Dooley and Rosie Kelly at the power forward and centre positions. The lack of depth on the Elks’ side is perhaps the most significant problem for coach Aodhán Hickey.

As expected, the game went right down to the wire and with a tied score at the end of regulation, both teams would need to endure for five minutes of overtime. A steal of an errant inbounds pass in Elks’ backcourt, presented O’Neill with an opportunity for an open three-point shot. A clutch score put Queen’s up 3 points with time winding down on the game-clock. O’Hagan played her part in keeping the hopes alive for the visiting team, knocking down two key freethrows but it wasn’t enough for the struggling Elks team.

Final Score: Queen’s 55 – UU Elks 54



Superleague preview

Both Ulster Rockets and Belfast Star are competing this weekend in the Irish Superleague. Ulster Rockets play host to Dublin-side Meteors on Saturday while Belfast Star journey to Cork to face Demons on Sunday afternoon. 

Ulster Rockets vs Meteors

Ulster Rockets are due to take on Meteors this weekend in an important league fixture. The last time these two teams met, Rockets suffered a disappointing loss (54-40) and are hoping that tomorrow’s showdown in La Salle sports complex will be a different story. Meteors are a strong and talented squad with a deep bench. Hugh Kilbride, Coach of the Meteors, focuses on full-court pressure defence, which caused problems for the Rockets in the previous match-up. However, Breda Dick is confident that her women have put in the necessary work and are better prepared to deal with the high-intensity defence played by Meteors. Rockets are in their first year in the Superleague and are currently in 6th place, competing for the final playoff spot.

Game Details: Saturday 21st January / La Salle Sports Complex / 6.30pm Tip-Off / Admission £3 per adults / Children FREE

Belfast Star vs Demons

Belfast Star travel south this Sunday to play Cork-side, Demons, who are currently top of the Southern Conference with 32 points. Although Star are amidst one of their most challenging season’s to-date, Coach Adrian Fulton believes that his players continue to work hard and learn from their experiences:

Game Details: Sunday 22nd January / Cork – Mardyke / 3.15pm Tip-Off