US players hoping to lead Ulster Elks to women's basketball glory

Media playback is not supported on this device

American boost for first-time finalists Ulster Elks

There are not many similarities between Jordanstown and New York.

The sleepy seaside townland just north of Belfast is in every way a far cry from the city that, famously, never sleeps.

Given the differences, you can imagine how transitioning from one to the other may prove tricky.

However, adapting from the bright lights of the Big Apple to the gentler surroundings of county Antrim has proved to be easy work for New York native Kollyns Scarbrough.

"I thought I would be more homesick than I am," she admits.

"In New York city you'll bump into someone and they will suck their teeth. Here you'll bump into somebody and they'll probably apologise."

On Sunday Scarbrough is unlikely to be offering any apologies should she bump into anyone, specifically an opponent, when she takes to the court for the Ulster University Elks women's basketball team in their first ever Division One Senior National Cup final.

The arrival of Scarbrough and Maryland native Jenna Kaufman has added an extra dimension to the Elks' already promising young squad with the team, who finished bottom the previous two seasons, sitting top of the Northern Conference.

The American duo arrived in August as 'Victory Scholars', a program established under the Sport Changes Life foundation.

Through the scholarship Scarbrough and Kaufman, both NCAA student athletes, have arrived in Northern Ireland not just to study a Masters degree while playing for the Elks, but primarily to participate in the community work of the foundation.

The Ulster University Elks play Maree in the Women’s Division One National Cup final
The Ulster University Elks play Maree in the 27 January Women’s Division One National Cup final at the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght

Great person over great player

The Victory Scholar program was established in 2007 by Sport Changes Life co-founders Professor Deirdre Brennan and husband Gareth Maguire, with the goal of positively affecting the lives of young people through sport.

The fact that the Victory Scholars are outstanding young basketball players is, says professor Brennan, secondary to their suitability to the community-engagement aspect of the program.

"We know when we are pulling from Division One, Two and Three programmes in the United States that we are going to get good athletes," she says.

"As a priority we are looking for great people. We are looking for character and people who represent the principles and the ideals of Sport Changes Life.

"They have to have integrity, honesty, to be trustworthy, loyal and able to develop relationships."

A lasting impact

On Tuesday night the Elks gathered for the penultimate training session before their final showdown with Galway side Maree.

Although a victory against a side that have already defeated them this season would be a seminal moment for the team, there is no doubt that their American recruits have not just added to the Elks' on-court prowess but handsomely contributed to the team's central ethos.

"We would not be able to compete in national league without Sport Changes Life and the victory scholars being here with us," admits head coach Patrick O'Neill.

New Yorker Kollyns Scarbrough will play for the Elks in the final against Galway team Maree
New Yorker Kollyns Scarbrough will play for the Elks in the final against Galway team Maree

"But the talent is secondary, it is about the type of people they can be and what they are going to bring to the team.

"Jenna and Kollyns are both fantastic people but also really talented basketball players and they have helped us take the step this season."

Taking the final step

Indeed for all the emphasis on their work off the court, the scholars found themselves having to adapt to a different style of basketball too.

"It is just a different game over here and that took some getting used to," says Kaufman.

"There are some differences with the referees and it is just a more physical game that we had to get used to."

It would appear that the Elks' newest players adapted quickly and played pivotal roles in the team's clutch win over the Portlaoise Panthers in the cup semi-final two weeks ago.

"We trained the whole way through the off-season and got a few new players in the team, they have brought the morale up and from there everyone's overall performance has increased," says co-captain Aoife Callaghan.

"The victory scholars have had a huge impact. They are amazing basketball players and they have lifted the whole team, it is really impressive."

The bigger picture is clearly never far from the mind of the victory scholars or indeed their team-mates.

That said, given the magnitude of Sunday's final, this week of all weeks the team could maybe be forgiven for having basketball on their minds.

"I have class throughout this week and every time I am sitting there I am just thinking about the game," says Scarbrough.

"It might not be the best day for classes this week. I cannot wait to play."

The Victory Scholars know that their time at Ulster University is about much more than basketball. Maybe just don't tell them that this week.

Top Stories