Shoot for the stars: Trinity player makes history

Rachel Huijsdens talks balancing life and sport, and what the jersey means to her

Pat Burke is famously the only Irish-born player to play in the NBA. It is a little known record but a great piece of Irish sporting history nonetheless. But if you wanted to look for more recent Irish basketball history, one need only cast their mind back to this summer where Rachel Huijsdens, a member of the Irish u-20 Women’s team, made history for the second time in two years. She spoke to Trinity News about her experience with the sport and what it felt like pulling on the green jersey.

Huijsdens was not drawn to basketball from the beginning. She was already playing Gaelic football and badminton as well as swimming and Irish dancing by the time she first played it. However, basketball became an aspiration when the legendary Kelvin Troy came to her school in Dunshaughlin and coached one of her P.E. sessions. “I just really enjoyed the experience, so I decided to join the local club, the Dunshaughlin Rockets,” she explained. Huijsdens had no intention of dropping anything to accommodate her new passion either:“It was a hectic enough schedule but fatigue isn’t something you feel at that age, so it was possible to do it all!”

For five years, she played with the Rockets as well as on her school team every year during her time there. When she turned 15, she left the Rockets to play for DCU Mercy, where she still plays today. “I would travel from Dunshaughlin to DCU three times during the week and then again at the weekend for matches,” explained Huijsdens. “Since 6th year, I’ve only trained twice a week to try and give myself a bit more time to study.” And starting college did nothing to make the training schedule any easier. “When I started in Trinity, I would commute in daily and then, on Wednesdays and Friday, travel back across town to evening training with Mercy. Luckily, this year I’ve moved up to Drumcondra so that take a little bit of the pressure off commuting.”

Despite all the commuting, Huijsdens’ talent on the court was undeniable and soon, it turned the heads of the Irish coaches. “It’s an amazing feeling to put on an Irish jersey and to go out and represent your country at an international level. I remember I just burst into tears when I found out that I made the final cut for the u16 Irish team,” recounted Huijsdens, reminiscing. “I think I only really realised then how much it meant to me to play on an Irish team. We spend so much time training and preparing for the Europeans [European Championships] that when the time for the tournament finally comes around, you’re not only playing for yourself or for your country but for your team and the girls you’re playing with.” It’s clear to see that pulling on the green jersey is not an honour that Huijsdens takes lightly.

“It’s an amazing feeling to put on an Irish jersey and to go out and represent your country at an international level.”

Having played for Ireland for the last couple of years, Huijsdens was delighted to be included in the Irish squad which travelled to Kosovo for the under-20 FIBA European Championships B Division. “I think the main emotion felt going over to the Europeans is excitement but obviously everyone also feels a little nervous and apprehensive!” she recalled. “Everyone on our team already had experience playing in a Europeans, this was my fourth one, and so I think that those previous experiences really helped with calming our nerves and not letting ourselves get overwhelmed.” But as she said, the prevailing emotion was one of excitement as the opportunity to watch their hard work pay off approached. “Our summer had been spent training and preparing for the Europeans so it’s always nice to finally get things underway!”

Were there any particular challenges that Huijsdens and the Irish team expected? “I think we knew going into the competition that every game was going to be very competitive and that we would have to be playing at our best to come away with a win,” she noted. “Great Britain and Ukraine were our first two games and even though we had beaten them before in the U18 Europeans in Dublin 2017, we knew how much teams can change and develop over a two year period and so I think we initially just focused on our games against them!” And focus on them they did! Two impressive wins saw Ireland glide through to the second round, lining up against Croatia, Israel and Great Britain. Huijsdens and her team-mates were able to overcome Great Britain again before suffering their first loss of the tournament to Israel. However, a stunning win over Croatia saw Ireland make it through to the semi-finals, with a clash against Bulgaria looming.  

Despite being in the more obscure location of Kosovo, the Irish team felt at times like they were playing home matches. “We had amazing support over in Kosovo. I think everyone on the team had family members travel over to support. Some members of the Irish Defence Force based in Kosovo also came to our games which we really appreciated. I think overall we had around 40+ Irish supporters at our games which was a huge boost, especially in close games when you need that extra push to get over the line.” Not only was there a physical bank of supporters but there was a huge amount of support online as well. ”Basketball Ireland covered our games on their Instagram and Twitter account and I think everyone received words of encouragement from family and friends back home over the course of the tournament.” 

While the team lost their semi-final to Bulgaria, they made it to a third place play-off where they faced Great Britain for the third time in this championship. “The third place play-off was a nail biter,” exclaimed Huijsdens, reflecting on the hectic encounter. “Initially, we were leading by 20 points but Great Britain clawed their way back into it over the course of the second half. In the end, we only won by three points!” But win they did. Ireland ran out 60-57 victors of Great Britain to secure a bronze medal, if by the narrowest of margins. “When the final whistle blew, we were all just ecstatic and also relieved that the game was over.” This victory was brilliant in its own right but the result also promoted the u-20 Women’s team into the A Division. This is only the second Irish basketball team at any level to ever be promoted to the A Division, the other being the u-18 Women’s team who took home silver in Dublin in 2017. A number of the players in Kosovo were part of that team as well, including Huijsdens. It appears making history is just what this team does.

This is only the second Irish basketball team at any level to ever be promoted to the A Division, the other being the u-18 Women’s team who took home silver in Dublin in 2017.

Dragged down from cloud nine after their victory, Huijsdens is back in college now. It is difficult for most people to balance life and college. Throw in high-level sports and it seems near impossible. Now in her second year of medicine, Huijsdens admits it’s certainly a challenge. “Last year, I found it tough settling into a new, hectic college routine and juggling club and college trainings and I think I was slightly burnt out trying to keep everything up.” But with a new plan and a new focus on managing time, Huijsdens is confident she’ll be able to stay at her best going forward. “I just need to make sure I leave enough time during the week for just myself, so I can either relax or meet up with my friends or catch up on a bit more college work!” Hopefully, everything goes according to plan because with her current track record, Huijsdens is sure to be making history for many years to come.

Conor Doyle

Conor Doyle is the current Sport Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister Law student.