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Saint Vincent grads Turner, Mathers build life, pro basketball careers in Australia

Chuck Curti
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The journey began in Bethany, W.Va., with a simple congratulatory text. The road led to the other side of the world.

Former Saint Vincent standouts Isaac Turner (Class of 2014) and Taylor Mathers (’15) are living their own version of love and basketball. Both first-team all-Presidents’ Athletic Conference selections as seniors, Turner and Mathers are engaged, living in Australia and involved in professional basketball.

Turner, a 6-foot-2 shooting guard, is entering his second season with Kilsyth of the Victorian Super League — one notch below Australia’s pre-eminent league, the National Basketball League — after making second-team all-league last season.

Mathers, a 6-2 forward, has played two seasons professionally and will begin her first season as a coach with one of the Knox club’s youth teams.

Neither anticipated this odyssey. And, at the moment, they wouldn’t trade it.

“Australia is somewhere we really enjoy,” Turner said. “So if we can make our stay longer, or indefinite, we would do that. But if something really cool comes along, we’d definitely strongly consider it if it was a good situation.

“It is exciting. But no matter what happens, it will be a good opportunity, and we’ll make it work.”

When Mathers and Turner were seniors at Saint Vincent, the Bearcat basketball teams played a doubleheader at Bethany. Turner had a particularly good game in SVC’s victory, and, on the bus ride home, Mathers texted Turner to compliment him on his performance.

Their relationship took off from there.

“I think he tried to put the moves on me one time before, and I think I blew him off a little bit,” Mathers, 26, recalled, laughing.

Turner graduated in spring of 2014, then set about trying to fulfill his lifelong dream of playing professionally. Mathers, meanwhile, remained at Saint Vincent to work on her master’s degree in education and use her final year of basketball eligibility.

Turner and SVC teammate Dillon Stith, the 2014 PAC Player of the Year, went to a combine in Indianapolis where, from a group of several dozen players, 10 were selected to go to Australia to work out, play exhibition games and, perhaps, get signed by one of the nation’s clubs.

Turner made the cut and, after the Australia tour, got signed by the Sutherland Sharks of the Waratah League in New South Wales. (Stith also signed and continues to play in Australia with the McKinnon club.)

Once Mathers’ season was finished at Saint Vincent, she went to visit Turner in Sydney. She stayed there for a month, during which time he proposed.

Mathers returned to Latrobe — sapphire engagement ring in tow — finished her degree then packed up and moved to Australia. It was a daunting leap for an admitted homebody.

“I didn’t go to college far away because I didn’t want to be away from home,” the Laurel Highlands grad said. “Isaac has been away from (his home in) Florida, so he was used to it.

“I am really close with my family. It was really hard for me to initially leave them.”

At first, they lived with the family of one of Turner’s Sutherland teammates. Mathers took a job in a retail shop to make a little money while she figured out if her education degree from the U.S. could land her a job in Australia.

By the time Turner entered his second season with Sutherland, word got out Mathers had some basketball chops. Officials at the club — Australia’s clubs have male and female teams ranging from youth to professional — asked Turner if Mathers would be interested in playing for their women’s team.

So after a year away from competitive play, Mathers was back on the court. She ended up leading the league in field-goal percentage, and Turner was named league MVP after averaging 26.4 points.

The following season, Mathers landed a long-term substitute teaching job while Turner continued playing. Turner then changed agents, which brought about a change of scenery for the couple.

After three seasons with Sutherland, Turner signed with Kilsyth, a step up in competition, so he and Mathers drove 16 hours from Sydney to Melbourne to begin their next phase. Once again, a playing gig presented itself to Mathers.

She told Turner to let the women’s coach know she was looking to run up and down the court a bit. Maybe the team needed a practice player. She didn’t harbor any thoughts of being on the roster.

Matt Shanahan, coach of the Knox Raiders, contacted Mathers to come in for a tryout. Mathers said she was out of shape and wasn’t at her best, but she still was offered a contract.

Being involved in the community, Mathers said, is a big part of what the Australian clubs do. Because of her role as a teacher and, Shanahan said, her work ethic, she was a perfect fit.

“Taylor was a pleasure to coach and to have around our club,” Shanahan said in an email to the Trib. “On the court, she was very consistent all season with her performance.

“Off the court, she is simply just one of the most amazing ‘imports’ I have ever had. She connected straight away to her teammates and to our junior players.”

Said Mathers: “Both years I have played in Australia, I was not looking to play. I say all the time: The game just falls into my lap. It won’t let me get away.”

Turner has established himself as a solid player, averaging 19.9 points for Kilsyth last season in earning second-team all-league honors.

“He has been a great addition to our club on whole,” Kilsyth coach Justin Schueller said in an email. “He is great in the community and with our camps program and, on the court, has been able to cement himself as one of the best imports in the league.”

Their situation away from basketball finally started to stabilize. They graduated to living in a “flat” then a house. They also are working on acquiring permanent residency in Australia. They have been staying there on sporting visas that have a limited shelf life and require frequent renewal, but permanent residence would eliminate that hassle and serve as the next step to dual citizenship, if they choose that route.

That prospect was unimaginable to the couple just a few years ago.

“I assumed that (I was going to be playing in) Europe somewhere because there’s a lot of opportunity there,” Turner said. “It never really dawned on me that (Australia) was a viable or realistic option.”

Turner and Mathers recently returned to Australia for the start of Kilsyth’s training camp. The regular season in the “Big V,” as the league is known, begins March 29.

Mathers is going back to teaching in addition to coaching a Knox team of 14- to 16-year-old girls. She also is keeping her options open if another playing opportunity arises.

“I think I’d definitely like to see her continue to play,” Turner said, adding they often work out together. “I sort of get the feeling something is going to fall into her lap again.”

Of course, this life of love and basketball hasn’t come without a price. Most significantly, it means missing out on time with family.

Turner has two younger brothers, ages 5 and 12. Given his eight years away from home — four at Saint Vincent and four in Australia — he has missed out on a lot of their growing up. Keeping up with them involves frequent video chats and making the most of his visits home.

“It’s a blessing that I’m out of my teenage years,” Turner, who will be 27 in April, said. “It’s a blessing being at an older age and helping them with their experiences.”

For Mathers, leaving this time was particularly difficult. In November, her younger brother, Tristan, died suddenly. He was 21.

She carries a tangible memento of him in the form of three tattoos she recently had done. On the underside of her left forearm, she got a simple cross — Tristan had the same tattoo in the same spot — and underneath it, on her wrist, the words “Little Rock.” Growing up, they always said they were each other’s rock. She was “Big Rock” to his “Little Rock.”

Her right triceps displays a pair of deer antlers, representing a prized buck he and their father killed while hunting together some years ago.

She believes continuing on her adventures with Turner also is a way to honor her late brother.

“A lot of people said, ‘How are you going to leave? How are you going to go back?’ ” she said. “But if I would stay, it would sort of destroy my ambition and my drive, and that’s exactly what I don’t want to do. And he wouldn’t want me to do that.

“It’s going to push me even more.”

So they are off again, to the Land Down Under, living out the next chapter in their story. Funny part is, they don’t know what is on the next page.

They don’t have a wedding date. They aren’t sure how much longer they will be in Australia. They don’t know when — or if — they will return to the States for good.

Mathers admitted living “in short chunks of life” is a little scary. At the same time, it’s exciting, and she and Turner plan on going with the flow no matter where it takes them.

“Isaac and I are not the type of people to pass up an amazing opportunity,” Mathers said. “We just want to have experiences. We want to do what we can while we have that time.

“I don’t think that we should live in fear of missing out. Our families always know we love them and will be in contact with them. We don’t want to turn anything down. We just want to live and be happy.”

Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck at [email protected] or via Twitter @CCurti_Trib.