After fame in Ireland, McFerran leads Louisville field hockey

Ayeshia McFerran smiles on Senior Day. (Eric Crawford photo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The most well-known international athlete at the University of Louisville can walk across campus without causing a stir. Google, her, though, and you’ll experience celebrity buzz.

Ayeisha McFerran is one of the top field hockey goalkeepers in the world. In fact, for a time last summer, the Larne, Northern Ireland, senior was the best in the world, helping to lead Ireland to a surprise runner-up finish in the Women’s Hockey World Cup in London, and winning the goalkeeper of the tournament award.

McFerran and her teammates were the toast of Ireland. Headlines from Belfast to Cork tracked and praised her accomplishments. In Galway, they postponed the races while Ireland won a shootout in the semifinal. In Dublin, she rode in a parade to welcome the team home after the finish. She met the president of Ireland. She received an invitation to participate in Ireland’s version of Dancing With the Stars.

“Very random,” she said, laughing. “. . . . I was lucky I got to go back home to my town for two days and the buzz was crazy. I went into a little bakery and my face was on a cookie, and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’”

And within a few days, it was a (not so) distant memory. McFerran left the hoopla – and delayed her chance to dance with the stars — to come back to hoops country at U of L, to try and lead the Cardinals to a championship.

Even in a field hockey community as vibrant as Louisville, it’s tough to compete with those bright lights. And McFerran was not just coming off that, but off an incredible, high-profile run in an international tournament. Her expectations for herself returning to Louisville as a senior were incredibly high.

Fortunately for her, she had a coach in Justine Sowry who understood the challenge she was about to face. Sowery was a two-time Olympian in the sport for Australia, and was a part of two gold medal World Cup teams. She made sure McFerran had time to make a reasonable transition from international tournament to NCAA play.

“It was definitely a challenge for sure,” McFerran said. “I kind of knew coming back it was going to be difficult, just from a personal standpoint, because you go through that kind of success with one team and wish to carry it over to another team. It did take a minute to get back into the season and back into playing myself. But the girls supported me the whole time and definitely didn’t put as much pressure on me to perform as I did myself. But I did know it was going to be difficult and the coaches really supported me with everything.”

McFerran wasn’t perhaps a likely candidate to become a hockey star. For years, her mother steered her toward Irish dancing – mainly just hoping to exhaust some of her daughter’s boundless energy. And McFadden took it seriously – in fact, she credits all those years of dance training for some of the footwork she has in goal.

Still, at one point she probably dreamed more of Riverdance than hockey heroics.

McFerran takes a breather during a timeout. (Eric Crawford photo)

“I was so energetic,” she said. “I played soccer to start, then got to secondary school and they were looking for a hockey goalkeeper, and I was the kind of kid who said, ‘Pick me, I want to do everything.’ So I just kind of went in and was very fortunate. My soccer helped me out a lot. And I just worked my way up through Ulster, and then Ireland stuff for under age, and had really good opportunities with good coaches and playing a lot.”

She might’ve let misfortune sideline her, but she didn’t. She lost her mother to breast cancer after a long battle with it when she was 15. Her mother had been her biggest encourager, the one who prodded her to keep up with training, to try new things.

“Like any individual losing a parent, it’s very difficult no matter what age you are, whether you’re 50 or you’re 10,” McFerran said. “But I used sports as my release. It was kind of my time to get away. Whatever frustrations, anger, whatever I had at the world and what was going on with the whole situation, it kind of allowed me to de-stress. And the teams I played on were so supportive of everything I did, it helped me to open myself up as a person in asking for help and using those around me instead of trying to do everything myself.”

She emerged a more driven person. She became the youngest goalkeeper in Irish national team history. And she came to Louisville almost on a whim, recruited by Lucas Piccioli, a U of L assistant who also assisted with Ireland’s team.

At Louisville, she has become an All-American, and a team leader.

“It’s taught me a lot of lessons, both on the pitch and as an individual,” she said. “My freshman year I kind of threw in the towel very quickly and was just like, ‘This isn’t for me, blah, blah, blah.” But the coaches really supported me and pushed me at my boundaries and what I wasn’t comfortable with, to kind of adapt. And I know that’s translated to my life away from sports, and helped me with school. The education system here is phenomenal. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after school, so I was able to come over here and really delve into what I was interested in. It’s a massive opportunity, for any individual whether they’re from America or not, to play a D-1 sport, it’s a lot of life lessons, for sure.”

And then there was the life-changing experience in the World Cup. In back-to-back tournament matches, against India and Spain, she was unflappable in beating back penalty shot challenges to get Ireland, one of the tournament’s lower-rated squads, to the finals. Overnight, she was a celebrity. She got professional offers. Bars in Ireland were naming drinks after her and some of the other players.

Her father, a kitchen porter, had been unable to get off work to see any of the games. He watched her semifinal heroics against Spain on a cell phone, and soon all his co-workers were huddled around watching, too. When he got to attend the final in person, it was national news. While she was aware of the fan support, McFerran said she didn’t realize the level of buzz until she got home.

“Honestly, during the tournament, we were in our own bubble,” she said. “We would hear in dribs and drabs, because family were there and they were kind of letting us know. Out on the field, the environment was electric, the number of Irish who came over. But until we got back to Dublin, we didn’t really know the extent of everything that went on. We were in the center of Dublin and more than 10,000 people were there. . . . I still haven’t had time to fully process all that went on. I can still picture moments with the girls. People all around, wanting to take pictures with you. I’m just a local girl from Larne, nothing special, but the environment was unbelievable.”

Now she’s winding up her American odyssey, at least for the present. She’s hoping to lead U of L on a deep NCAA Tournament run, but first she and her teammates are competing in this week’s ACC Tournament. She’ll graduate in May with a degree in Exercise Science, and plans to pursue some professional playing opportunities in Europe, perhaps Holland or Germany, as she readies for a bid for the Ireland National Team to qualify for the Olympics.

Beyond that, she’s not sure. One day, she said she might like to return to the U.S. and coach. And then there’s that Dancing With the Stars offer.

“Next year, that’d be pretty cool,” she said.

Whatever the case, shutting the door in goal has opened many doors for her. Even if life is far quieter for her on this side of the Atlantic.

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