Our first interview in the series we caught up with LYIT Donegal's Shannon Cunningham, who was the MissQuote.ie Division 1 player of the month for December. She also won an Pinergy U19B Girls All-Ireland Schools Cup Final with Coláiste Ailigh in January.
Q: Shannon how did you get involved in basketball?
SC: “I was always surrounded by basketball growing up. My aunt played for LYIT and Letterkenny Blaze when I was young and that's how I was introduced to basketball. We would go to her matches to support her and I fell in love with the sport. My mum registered me with Letterkenny Blaze when I was about six years old and I’ve been playing for them ever since, from U8’s right up to U19’s.”
Q: Who or what has been your biggest inspiration in the sport since you started playing?
SC: “From a young age, I’ve always looked up to players such as Sabrina Lonescu and Sue Bird. I really admire their style of play and the love and passion they share for the game. They are two great examples of what every athlete should strive to be- determined, relentless and extremely hard-working. My younger sister Leila is also someone who drives and pushes me to become a better player. I remember growing up within Letterkenny Blaze and always looking up to the older girls who were playing for the U16 and U18 teams at the time. I try my best to be a good role model for both her and all the other up and coming players within the club.”
Shannon Cunningham in action for Ireland's U18's at the FIBA U18 Women's Challengers 2021
Q: Do you play any other sports and what would you say to encourage young girls to get involved in sport?
SC: “Up until I was about 15 years old I played for various teams in basketball, soccer and Gaelic. I tried to juggle the three sports for as long as I could, before deciding that it was basketball that I really wanted to focus on and be committed to. For any young girls out there, I would tell them to get involved in any sport as soon as possible. I think sport is extremely important for both our physical and mental well-being and it’s something that’s really benefited me and shaped me into the person I am today. I’ve made so many memories and lifelong friends down through the years because of sport and that’s something I think every young girl should get to experience. The lessons and challenges that sport has to offer are invaluable and I would encourage all young girls to get involved in as many sports as they can from a young age.”
Q: It’s been quite a year for you on the court, let’s start with winning the Pinergy U19B Girls Schools Cup Final with Coláiste Ailigh this season over Laurel Hill SS, how much did it mean to you?
SC: “With it being my final year of school basketball, it meant the world to me. To have been able to win with girls I’ve known since junior infants makes it that bit more sentimental. I set the goal at the start of the school year to win the Cup and I couldn’t have done it with a better bunch of people. Our coach Lynda McGuinness has coached some of us girls since we were 5 or 6 years of age within Letterkenny Blaze and has such a great passion for basketball. Our teacher Keith Cowan has been with us right from the beginning of 1st year up until 6th year and the support both he and Lynda have given us is phenomenal. When you have players and coaches who are so passionate and dedicated to the game of basketball it makes winning finals such as the U19 Cup all the more special. All-Ireland Finals don’t come around too often and to have been able to finish off my school basketball career with this title is something I’ll cherish forever.”
Q: You picked up MVP in that game, did you feel any pressure to deliver, being a National League player and with extra expectation on your shoulders?
SC: “Personally, I treat every game the same whether it’s club, National League or school. Obviously there’s an added sense of responsibility to deliver when you’re playing on a school team, where some of the girls have never played competitive basketball outside of school. I've been playing National League for a couple of years now. I think it has been of great benefit to me and has helped me become a leader on the court when it comes to school basketball. I prefer playing when there’s a sense of pressure on me, so if anything, I think it spurred me on and helped me deliver on the day."
Shannon Cunningham presented with her MVP award by Basketball Ireland president PJ Reidy after the Pinergy U19B All-Ireland Schools Cup final
Q: As we mentioned, you’ve been playing National League basketball for LYIT Donegal, how much of a steep learning curve has it been for you this season?
SC: “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing for LYIT Donegal this season in the National League. The game is definitely more fast paced and physical, as opposed to underage club basketball, or school basketball and it’s really pushed me to become a better player. The National League provides a great opportunity to be able to play some of the best players in the country week in, week out and I’ve learned a lot of lessons throughout the season. The competition has been really tough and you have to fight hard for every result you get. I think it has really improved my overall performance as a player. No two games are ever the same, which means you have to be able to adapt and change your game according to what your opponents bring to the table.”
Q: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve taken from the year playing in MissQuote.ie Division 1?
SC: “One of the biggest lessons I have learned this year is the importance of discipline and mental strength. When you’re playing against the top teams, it’s never going to be easy. No matter how many points we were down or up, we played and fought hard until the final whistle. Even when the going gets tough, you have to have determination and a strong mentality to push on. We had quite a young team this year, with a limited amount of players, so discipline was definitely a big factor throughout the season. Not only was it important to stay out of foul trouble, but also to remain composed and fight until the end of each game.”
Q: You were the December MissQuote.ie Division 1 Player of the Month, how much confidence did that give you, particularly when it’s voted by those involved in the league?
SC: “It was a great privilege to be awarded Player of the Month in a league where there are so many great Irish and international players. As a team we really performed strongly in December and I couldn’t have done it without the girls. I thought we all performed really well. I was delighted to get that recognition after a successful month and it made all the late nights and sacrifices worth it! When you get that kind of acknowledgement it really does boost your confidence and proves you’re doing something right. I was eager to get back out on the court to pick up where I left off!”
LYIT Donegal head coach Niall McDermott presenting Shannon Cunningham with her MissQuote.ie Division 1 Player of the Month award for December
Q: What are your future goals in the sport, would going abroad to play appeal to you at some point?
SC: “Definitely. Right now, the main focus is getting the Leaving Cert completed and choosing the correct option for college. I would love to be able to get the opportunity to study and play basketball in America. There are some fantastic avenues for girls to travel abroad and play sport nowadays and hopefully that is something that may work out for me in the near future. It's something that I’ve been looking into. As for after college, I’m not quite sure where I’ll end up, but as long as I have a basketball in my hand I’ll be happy!”