Hanover — Focus and mental toughness are survival tools for Ivy League athletes. The successful ones are able to push aside academic challenges and personal problems when they step into practice or competition. At this, Dartmouth College basketball forward Isalys Quinones is one of the best.
The 6-foot-3 junior is not only attending school across the continent from her hometown near San Diego, but she’s pursuing an especially demanding engineering major. And while her drive for improvement has helped lift the Big Green from the league basement this winter, her mind is also occupied with the suffering of extended family members in Puerto Rico.
Quinones’ parents, Roberto and Frances, were born in that U.S. territory and moved to the mainland during their teens. Her father’s family settled in San Diego while her mother joined the Marines and later the Navy in a military career that spanned 22 years.
The 2018 FIBA World Cup will be hosted Sept. 22-30 by Spain, and Quinones helped Puerto Rico qualify last summer. Her parents had been trying to get their daughter noticed by Puerto Rican management, but once that goal was accomplished, Isalys first had to make the territory’s 40-player national pool, then its 12-player game roster.
That process coincided with the start of Dartmouth’s summer term, and “Ice” had only two days’ notice that she was involved, setting off a frantic scramble to postpone classes and cancel housing.
“I was running in circles,” Quinones said. “I had moved my stuff into the place I was going to live, and then I had to put it back in storage. I had to talk to my dean and write a letter describing why I should be off that term.”
Quinones hadn’t been back to Puerto Rico for an extended stay in more than five years, and she said she viewed the training camp as a learning process, rather than a step toward actually making the team. She was the only competitor still in school; most others were former U.S. college players in their mid-20s and some were experienced, international competitors 30 or older.
“I had a little leg up because of my height,” said Quinones, who has a Puerto Rican team photo on her Twitter page (@iceicebaby251). “Toward the end of the week, I was still nervous, but I knew they needed post players and thought I had a pretty good shot.”
Quinones didn’t just make the team, she got decent playing time for it. Puerto Rico finished in the top three at its first tournament in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, qualifying for the next event in Argentina. The squad repeated its feat, qualifying for the World Cup for the first time. There’s no guarantee Quinones will make the team again this year, but a veteran post player has retired, which helps her chances.
For now, Quinones is concentrating on helping Dartmouth improve. The fifth-place Big Green is 10-7 overall and 2-2 in league play and hosts Cornell and Columbia this weekend. Those teams are each 1-3 in the Ivies.
The international experience Quinones gained has both toughened and refined her play. Banging in the paint with bigger, stronger opponents drove home the point that she had to be more physical, and the increased speed helped her basketball IQ. Capable of excelling just about anywhere on the floor, Quinones is third on Dartmouth with an average of 10.6 points and 6.1 rebounds.
“We call her a point-post player,” said fifth-year coach Belle Koclanes, whose team is fighting to reach the four-team Ivy League postseason tournament at the Palestra in Philadelphia. “We want her to have the skills of a point guard at the post position.”
Koclanes said Quinones entered Dartmouth with scoring ability and the defensive presence to alter or deflect opponents’ shots. However, she needed dribbling and passing work and had to learn the tactics and footwork necessary for team defense. There’s also been a slow push to extend the big woman’s shooting range, to progress from short, corner jumpers and 15-footers all the way out beyond the 3-point line.
“Basketball here can’t just be something else you do,” Koclanes said. “You have to love it and want to put time into it.”
Quinones certainly loves her family’s homeland, which was walloped by Hurricane Maria four months ago. Barely half the island had regained power as of the New Year, and her maternal grandmother was evacuated to Florida, although she returned to her hometown of Bayamon after a couple months.
Quinones said her father’s uncle lives in the countryside and remains without electricity, and one of her national teammates was forced to drink water she had previously used for laundry.
“I sent texts to some of my friends asking if they were OK, and to not hear back from them for a couple weeks is really scary,” Quinones said. “My parents are very passionate about Puerto Rico and they’re devastated by this.”
Roberto Quinones works for the San Diego Sheriff’s Department and procures everything needed by inmates in its jails. His wife is a computer science engineer. They raised Isalys and her sister, Christina, in a Spanish-speaking environment full of live music and delectable food. Visitors from other Puerto Rican families were common and there was a daily consciousness of the island’s culture. Now, there is mostly sadness.
“People are without out power and water to this day, but the 24-hour news cycle seems to make Puerto Rico less important,” Roberto Quinones said. “People have generators, but getting gas or diesel (fuel) on a daily basis has become routine for most people. The situation is not getting fixed quickly.”
Isalys Quinones hopes further success by her Puerto Rico team will lift spirits in her homeland. Koclanes thinks it could also propel the youngster to new, personal heights.
“She came back with new confidence,” the coach said. “We’re just scratching the surface with Ice and I think she can play this game for a long time if she wants to.”