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Moran helps put St. Joe’s on women’s Div. I basketball map

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Dave Hannigan

Like every good fable, the origins are simple and unremarkable. A group of adolescent girls in Tullamore decide to try out for the school basketball team. One of them becomes so frustrated at her inability to execute a simple layup that she asks her father to fashion a hoop for her to practice on. In mastering that shot, she discovers new challenges to making the ball swish through the net and falls for the game. Before long, her P.E. teacher hands her the keys to the gym so she can train whenever she wants to and, somewhere along the way, she develops into the best player Ireland has ever produced.

A journey that began so randomly that day at home in Offaly has brought Susan Moran here, to a leafy campus in Philadelphia that the locals call Hawk Hill. Midway through her third year on scholarship at St. Joseph’s University, she is sitting in the upper deck of Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse, a venue where she has already left an indelible mark. After picking up a raft of individual awards in her first two campaigns, she is averaging a hefty 24 points per game this season, and recently became the third-fastest player in school history to pass the thousand points milestone. Not bad going for a 5-foot-11 forward who is conceding vital inches to most opponents.

"I’ve been surprised at how well I’ve done because when I came here first, Philly seemed so huge and I was so busy and people were talking all this slang I didn’t know," she said. "There was so much going on and I had to try to fit in. Stupid, small things made me uncomfortable, like instead of somebody saying: ‘How’s it goin’?’ or ‘what’s the craic?’, they’d just nod and say: ‘Yo, wassup?’ Then I’d go to answer them and they’d be gone. I learned kind of quick that ‘Yo, wassup?’ was only a term of acknowledgement and not a proper conversation-opener?"

The teething problems overcome, her impact has been extraordinary. In women’s basketball, Div. I is the crucible to which the world’s best come to see if they can measure up. Playing alongside Moldovan, Bosnian and Slovakian internationals, the standard-bearer for the Irish game has acquitted herself well against opponents who have since graduated to the Women’s NBA. With many teams now setting up their defense specifically to try to minimize her shot-taking, there is serious speculation that she may be headed to the professional ranks herself.

"Last year we had a couple of pro scouts at our games and at the Virginia game this year, there were some more," Moran said. "I played OK that night but not great. They show up from time to time and you see them there huddled in the front row. I don’t know how realistic a possibility the WNBA is for me, but, obviously, it’s something I would like to do. It wouldn’t be so much the money as the prestige of making it at that level."

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Playing basketball for St. Joseph’s isn’t exactly low-profile. Everybody on the team gets formally trained in dealing with the media because many of their games are broadcast on local television, and three times a year they make it on to the national showcase of ESPN.

After leading the team to a historic NCAA tournament victory over Texas last March 17, she sat in the post-game press conference and listened as reporter after reporter harped on about the significance of an Irish player contributing 24 points and 13 rebounds on St. Patrick’s Day. What was amusing at first became sort of annoying when they started repeatedly implying that she, and by extension St. Joseph’s, had enjoyed the luck of the Irish. In the rush for a convenient angle, she felt the press were downgrading the team’s performance.

She said: "I just thought they were losing sight of what we had done, so I spoke up. I said: ‘Yeah, it’s great that it’s St. Patrick’s Day and I’m proud to be Irish, but you know what, the luck of the Irish didn’t win that game for us. And it’s not luck that we are here.’ "

Those who knew her growing up would regard the tendency to emphasize the collective over the individual as a hallmark of her character. In a glittering schools’ career with Sacred Heart, Tullamore, Moran annexed a multitude of scoring records but the way she remembers it today, the town was just fortunate that a group of like-minded, athletic girls came together at the one time. Having begun competing in the "C" Grade, they won the National "A" title the year she sat the Leaving Certificate. By then, Martin and Eithne Moran were helping their daughter sift through a pile of invitations from American universities.

St. Joseph’s marked itself out from the pack when Reggie Grennan, an assistant coach at the college with Irish parents, fetched up in Tullamore one afternoon and played pick-up ball with the local girls. A small school with an excellent academic record and serious basketball ambitions sounded like the perfect fit, and once they flew her out to see the campus, she was smitten.

"There is a nice balance here," Moran said. "They want to win, but they will not allow you neglect your studies. We have a basic rule that the priorities are books, basketball and then boys. As in, your social life must come third. Anybody found to have missed a class or stepped out of line in any way gets a punishment called an attitude adjustment, which entails getting up at 6 in the morning and running three miles on the track as a coach looks on. They are strict on the little things because we are a small school and on the court, the little things are going to make all the difference for us."

With less than three months until the NCAA playoffs, the apogee of each college basketball year that is justifiably known as "March Madness," things will heat up in the next few weeks as St. Joseph’s seek to qualify. Making the final 32 last season was a major achievement, but with a younger team this time round, their hopes of going further are dependent on how the axis of Moran and point guard Angela Zampella performs.

"One of the coaches was reading this recruiting newsletter the other day and there was a paragraph in it about this Danish high school prospect and the journalist wrote that this girl had a similar playing style to St Joe’s Susan Moran," she said. "That was a cool thing for me to see because I realize that the better that I do here and the more people know about me, then the more Irish kids will be recruited.

"That’s really important because sometimes I think we sell ourselves short. We don’t think we can make it in the game over here. But three more Irish girls came to play at American colleges this year, and some of the players we have at home are really good, and the more I do well the more it shows Irish basketball is well up there. If people start to think that we are able to compete because I’m winning with St. Joe’s, that would make me very happy."

To the 20-year-old pioneer, the weight of expectation is not a burden.

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