The St. Ambrose men’s basketball team probably didn’t launch Ireland on its way to a future Olympic gold medal in hoops.
But the Bees believe they did create a mild basketball buzz in a southern corner of a country more familiar with rugby and soccer during a 10-day, midseason overseas excursion.
“We got some people to those games, and obviously all those kids became pretty quick fans,” said Justin Blondell, a Fighting Bees sophomore from Moline. “We came into the gym, giving high fives, signing autographs. It was a tremendous experience.”
The idea behind the trip was to expose SAU players to something they might not otherwise experience, but the ancillary benefit was showing Irish youngsters how Americans play the game.
The Bees practiced roughly every other day during the trip that ended Saturday. They played exhibition games vs. Irish club teams Nov. 22 in Killarney and again Nov. 24 in Tralee.
They were particularly well-received in Killarney, where a grade school gymnasium was filled to capacity, mostly by young boys and girls just learning the game of basketball.
“They packed it and had it really roaring,” senior Bren Gillespie said of the 400-seat facility. “Every made basket was huge. So that was really cool.”
Paced by senior guard Justin Tiner’s 12 flashy points, the Bees won the Killarney contest 84-58.
“After that first game, I don’t think there was anybody in that city who
didn’t know who JT was,” Blondell said.
The Bees won 83-47 two days later in Tralee, then, after gathering at a local pub for a special Thanksgiving meal Thursday, staged an evening clinic back in Killarney for Irish grade school girls and 15 young boys.
“The young people just flocked to these guys,” SAU coach Ray Shovlain said. “They were signing autographs, the whole nine yards.”
The traveling party of 34 also did plenty of sight-seeing, including day trips to kiss the Blarney Stone and to see the Cliffs of Moher and the Waterford Crystal Factory. Thursday morning featured a treacherous and intriguing 41/2-hour drive along seascaped-and mountain-viewed Ring of Kerry.
The group traveled in rented cars and Shovlain got his fill of left-side driving on narrow country roads.
“The roads are just brutal, man,” he said.
But the scenery was spectacular and being there during an Irish financial crisis was educational, the players said.
“I enjoyed it a lot,” said Gillespie, who grew up in Geneseo, Ill. “Gillespie’s Irish. I just soaked it all in. Trip of a lifetime.”