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All Stars aiming for glory this season

There’s something about this new EJ Sligo All Stars team.

he new season gets underway this Saturday with a home tie against Tolka Rovers at the Mercy College Gym, with tip off at 7.30pm.

Maybe it’s the fact that the national League is finally underway, after a year and a half with very little basketball, but you get the sense that the 2021/22 season has the potential to be a special one for the club.

That’s certainly the vibe one gets when speaking to players.

The three professionals who have signed for the new season – Zack Powell, Jamie Hayes and Keith Jordan Jr – bring with them a mixture of experience and incredible talent.

That, coupled with the young talent already at the club, means that there is an air of confidence among those involved as the new season gets started.

Cian Lally has been a member of the senior squad for some time. So maybe it’s when he speaks so highly of the potential of this squad, it means something.

After all, he’s been there long enough to know what he’s talking about.

“We’ll win the National League. That’s the aim,” he confidently told The Sligo Champion.

“It’s not going to be easy. We’ve got great talent, great youth, the three lads who have come in are great.

“Zack is young and he’s a great point guard, Keith is an exceptional player and Jamie is a bit older and has great experience.

“Then we have the local lads so there’s a good mix. I’m excited. It’s going to be a long season. We’re just glad to be back, that’s the main thing.”

It’s been a long eighteen months for those involved with the All Stars.

Basketball was one of the worst affected sports with Covid restrictions, due to the fact that it’s an indoor sport.

Several false starts got the hopes up, before teams were eventually given the green light in recent weeks to return to training indoors and competitive action.

Lally added: “It’s great to be back. There’s a great buzz because we haven’t been allowed train indoors.

“When Covid first hit the lads were down in Doorly Park outdoors training for two or three months in the pouring rain, it was a disaster. We’re very happy to get back.

“It’s great to have the three professional lads, we have a great young team.”

Lally himself was fortunate enough to have GAA to keep him going. But there’s no doubt that he missed basketball.

“It was obviously very frustrating. It was hard for the supporters, even my Mum and my family were dying to go into games because coming here on a Saturday night was very important to them so it’s great.”

Another local, Conor Byrne, will have to sit out the start of the season with a thumb injury, but being able to go to games will come as a huge relief after what’s been a tough couple of years.

“It will be nice alright given the lockdown last season, it will be nice to get back. I haven’t played in two years so it’s a big break for me. I took a year out before last year. I came back, Covid hit and then I came back and in my second session I damaged my thumb. It will be nice to have games here again.”

Byrne is likely to miss a few months of the season with that injury, but the fact he still attends training sessions to watch and just be there speaks volumes of the importance of the return of the sport.

He might miss some of the season, but Byrne is an important part of the squad nonetheless.

He, too, is impressed by what he has seen from the professional players so far.

“They’re good, solid professional players and they’re of a standard you expect of players coming in.”

For both Lally and Byrne, as local lads, winning silverware would feel extra specal.

“It would mean a lot. The first year we played National League was the year we got to the Natonal Cup final and I unfortunately wasn’t playing, we lost to Neptune . We had a great year that year, it was really really good and then after that we had ups and downs. This year, I’m kind of fully focused on basketball. It would be great to have Super League back here in Sligo,” Lally said.

Byrne added: “It would be special and it would mean a lot to the club because they haven’t won anything at senior level in a long time.

“They have had good teams over the years, it would be nice.”

It’s all business for the three professional players who are well settled into life in the North West of Ireland by now.

Powell, a point guard, arrives in Sligo after two seasons with the Manchester Giants.

The 21-year-old was once hailed as ‘one of the most exciting young British prospects’ in the British Basketball League.

The Birmingham native said his time in Manchester taught him a lot.

“For me, it’s been a learning process. For the last two years I’ve been with Manchester Giants, and I met some incredible people there, coaches. All it was for me was learning really. I was one of he youngest, I had to pick up things from other people and learn the game.

“I’ve still got a lot to learn, they give me a good platform to stand on to promote myself.”

The opportunity to sign for the All Stars came about when assistant coach Glen Monaghan got in touch with Powell’s former coach.

“This came about after the last season ended.

“My old coach hit me up and he said there was a job opportunity for me in Sligo which benefited me so I said I would go ahead and give it a try and start a new chapter.”

He didn’t need to do too much research as Monaghan ensured he saw all the best bits before making the move across the water.

“I was googling a little bit but Glen was hitting me up on Whatsapp showing me what Sligo is about, the countryside, the sea, all of that.

“It’s quite cool. I’ve been out, where I live there’s horses and cows and I haven’t been this close to them.”

The move to the All Stars presents Powell with a golden opportunity, one he hopes can be a big launch point for his career.

“I want it to be a big starting point for me. I want to come here and really help this team and win a ‘Championship. When I leave here or whatever happens I know that I helped the club grow.”

For supporters of the All Stars, Powell has promised he will put on a show each week to entertain.

“That’s one thing that Glen kept repeating to me, he said ‘have fun, take the game seriously but most importantly put on a show for the people to watch because that’s what they want.

“You putting on a show and winning the game, that’s what it’s all about. The fans of this team like a show as well.”

For Keith Jordan Junior, he is hoping he can finally get out there and play some competitive games.

Having signed for Templeogue last season, Jordan did his two weeks of quarantine, trained for a month and played one friendly game, before basketball came to a halt yet again.

It was a frustrating time for the now 23-year-old, but he is not dwelling on the negatives.

“Last year was a write off so this year is something I want to build on. I got work done and I learned a lot in the off-season and turned negatives into positives.”

Jordan is hopeful that this season in Sligo can be a ‘stepping stone’ for him.

He wants to make a difference here in Sligo, and by all accounts it sounds like he certainly win.

A graduate of Sienna Heights, Jordan is highly regarded.

The move to Ireland was a big deal, but now that he is settled in he is raring to go.

“I didn’t know a lot of people that went to Ireland. It was huge for me to get over here and get started. It really is a big stepping stone.

“Everything is going well. I’ve started to enjoy it more, I’m not as homesick and I’m better now that we can get out and about and move around.”

He’s well settled in now, and has already decided that Strandhill is his favourite part of the county, so far.

On the court, Jordan wants the All Stars to enjoy some success this season.

“I hope we can win a championship and get promoted to the Super League and also I’ve met a lot of great people so far so I want to keep building relationships with the great people here. It’s a good destination to visit when I come back down the road.”

He strongly believes that this team has what it takes to win the National League.

“Yes I do. I think we do. As we get more practice we get more chemistry with each other. I’m impressed.”

The experience of the third professional, Jamie Hayes, will be vital if the All Stars are to earn promotion to the Super League.

As one of the more senior players there,

Hayes knows what it takes to have a successful season.

The 28-year-old spent the last couple of seasons played with the London Lions having had to cut his Italian dream short early in 2020 due to Covid-19.

He said: “Luckily in England I was able to still play in a top league and that was throughout. The year Covid hit I was playing professionally in Italy and it had to stop and I had to come home.

“It would have been great because we were just heading into the play-offs which was unexpected. We achieved more than we should have.”

The move to Sligo was a real sudden decision, as he had been preparing to play with a team in England.

But, when the call came in, Hayes didn’t take too long to make up his mind.

“It was a real last minute thing. On the Tuesday that week I had already signed with a team in England called Essex Rebels and then Glen rang me on the Wednesday and said I was recommended by someone I know, asked if I was interested. We spoke for a couple of days and then I came to Ireland and signed.”

Although Hayes admits he had never heard of Sligo, his family hail from Wexford so there is that sense of familiarity.

Once he saw Sligo had plenty of coastline, he was happy.

With a young squad, the experience that Hayes brings to the table is one of his biggest assets.

“I’m the oldest on the team. I think that’s one of the selling points for me,

“Glen was saying ‘I’m so happy we have you, someone who can talk and communicate with some of the others about what you’ve been through and how to get over adversity’. I bring that I guess.”

When asked if winning the National League is a realistic aim for the All Stars, he said: “Yeah it is realistic. We’re going to win the league. The talent is there 100%.”

Hayes is renowned for being a grafter, who always gives it 100% regardless of circumstances.

That is something fans can look forward to.

“I always do (give it everything). Not every time the ball goes in the hoop so you’ve got to offer other things, whether that’s on the bench or whatever.”

What can fans expect to see from him?

“Bit of cheekiness! And commitment and getting the younger guys better and showing them how to play the game. Plenty of frees too!”

Playing professionally is only a recent change for Hayes, but he is making the most of it.

“Most of my career was in England and I didn’t really have an interest in going abroad because I had a full time job at the time, a well paid job.

“So playing semi-professionally in England worked out fine but then I kind of got sick of my job and the offer from Italy came so that’s when I started to think about playing in different countries.”

The belief is there, and the talent certainly is so there could very well be a special year in store for the All Stars.

Catch them at home this Saturday.

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