** Interview conducted by John Flack
These are exciting times for Zoe Wilson, who will make her senior international debut over the coming days when Ireland face Spain in four internationals in Valencia.
It’s the culmination of a hugely successful spell for the 18-year-old who recently helped Syracuse University win the US national title for the first time in their history.
As a reward for efforts, Wilson will accompany her team mates, including fellow Irish woman Emma Russell, to the White House where the girls will meet the President of the United States…. as you do!
Then she learned she had been picked for Graham Shaw’s squad for the trip to Spain shortly before helping Randalstown lift the Denman Ulster Shield for the first time since 2006 when she was home for Christmas.
Speaking about the Ireland call, she said it is a “very exciting” time, adding: “It is every athletes dream to represent their country at the highest level possible and having the opportunity to play at this high standard will be a challenge I will embrace.”
Reflecting on the NCAA victory, meanwhile, she explains the magnitude of the victory for the Big Orange, breaking new ground for the university’s programme.
“It was absolutely huge. To be a member of a team that made history at our University by winning the first national title in any women’s sport was very special.
“It is every collegiate athlete’s dream to win a National Championship and secure a ring. When I came to America it was my ambition to win a title, but to do it in my first year of being here in Syracuse was just unbelievable.
“I had not scored all season so It was also pretty cool to score my first goal of the season at such an important time!”
The NCAA championships take place on a different plain to anything on an Irish club or schools level as Wilson explains.
“We flew by charter plane on the Tuesday [for a Friday playoff semi-final] after a donation was made by Syracuse alumni, which was awesome!“Our bus just drove straight onto the runway and we boarded the plane; when we landed we had a private lounge to go into it before a short journey to the hotel.
“On the Saturday there was a considerable amount of snow but NCAA had invested approximately $30,000 to keep the field playable by protecting it with a bubble and heaters.”
Wilson says they tried to treat the final like “any other game” in their preparations, lining out in a match played at plunging temperatures. Syracuse eventually prevailed 4-2 in the final reckoning over North Carolina in Michigan.
“It was a tense game and North Carolina are tough competitors and they were the only team to have beaten us throughout the season; they were always a threat but when we secured the third goal which forced them to take their goalkeepers off for an outfield player.
“I knew we would have to soak up a lot of pressure. When the fourth goal went in, I knew that we just had to keep it together for the last five minutes. When the final whistle blew I think everyone was in disbelief that we had actually done it.
“Throughout our season, we talked every day about winning the Championship and even visualized lifting the trophy so it was an incredible feeling to have accomplished it, having my parents there to share the moment was very special.”
As part of their reward is their visit to the head of the US government.
“This will just be the icing on the cake getting to go to the White House to meet the President; we haven’t been told any details as of yet because of the election that is taking place so who knows if its going to be Clinton or Trump. Either way I am delighted and can’t wait!”
Reflecting on her experience of life in the US so far, says that the level of commitment to sport is unlike anything she has experienced before.
“Honestly I am having a brilliant time out here; the team that I am surrounded with I couldn’t ask for more. My teammates have become my best friends, we spend so much together as we train for four hours everyday and take some of the academic classes with them.“The level of commitment out here is something that I have not experienced before everything is catered for. At our sports centre, we have a Grab & Go bar which is full of healthy snacks, we have a team physio, masseuse, and equipment managers who ensures that all our training and playing kit is laundered and prepared so I am pretty spoilt.
“Every player in the team gives everything and last year the team was beaten in the final of the National Championship so the drive of the team is huge from the beginning it was our motto to always give ‘a little bit more’ and, in the end, it was that little bit more that won us the National Championship.
“A girl even lost three of her teeth in a training session just a week before the NCAA and put off surgery until after the championship final so that she could play in it.
“As the season is very compact, every game counts for rankings and at times when we have to travel to another venue for a match, it can mean a nine-hour coach journey and missed classes. All missed academic work has to be caught up on so it is very demanding on everyone and not a lot of free time during the season.
“The style of play in America does differ from the style at home, there is a lot of emphasis on fitness and a lot turnover during the game, in comparison to possession and patience when playing at home.
“Also, quite a bit of work is done on researching your opponents playing style, set pieces etc. so video and stats play an important part.”
Women’s match schedule (Valencia):
January 15: Ireland v Spain, 5.30pm
January 16: Ireland v Spain, 6pm
January 18: Ireland v Spain, 11.30am
January 19: Ireland v Spain, 11.30am
Ireland women’s squad: Stella Davis (Pembroke), Yvonne O’Byrne (Cork Harlequins), Kate Lloyd (UCD), Chloe Brown (Ards), Nikki Evans (Hermes), Katie Mullan (UCD), Shirley McCay (Ulster Elks), Megan Frazer (Ulster Elks), Elena Tice (Loreto), Naomi Carroll (Hermes), Emily Beatty (UCD), Gillian Pinder (UCD), Hayley Mulcahy (Loreto), Hannah Matthews (Loreto), Gemma Frazer (Ulster Elks), Deirdre Duke (UCD), Kerri McDonald (Ards), Ali Meeke (Loreto), Pamela Smithwick (Old Alex), Anna O’Flanagan (Hermes), Chloe Watkins (Hermes), Nicci Daly (Muckross), Zoe Wilson (Randalstown/Syracuse University), Emma Russell (Old Alex/Syracuse University), Ayeisha McFerran (Pegasus/University of Louisville)