Over the weekend prior to Halloween Banbridge Academy’s 1st XI girls put their domestic programme to one side as they travelled to Galsgow to compete in the prestigious Topflight UK Schools Tournament encompassing schools from England, Scotland and the island of Ireland. Bann have been regular travellers to this event having won it previously and been beaten in last years final.
Previous venues have been Cheltenham College in England and Dragons HC in Belgium while this year’s tournament was being hosted at various venues in Glasgow including Glasgow Green, host venue of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The match draw had been kind to the locals and they played all their games in the palatial surroundings of Glasgow Green. The squad of 16 and management team of 3 set off on Saturday morning on the high seas with a hectic schedule of 6 games in 2 days.
Sunday morning bright and early saw Bann take on Craigholme School, current West of Scotland indoor champions, and this proved to be a good test as the Scottish side proved a tough nut for the locals to crack. Half time saw the scores still 0-0 and Bann had to endure a few nervy moments to maintain parity in the scoreline. The second half saw the Lurgan Road side take control and two solo strikes from Bann’s Katie McKee saw them open their account with a win.
Next up for Bann after only an hour’s break was fellow Ulster side Royal School Dungannon and Bann eased past the Co Tyrone 6-0 with a sublime hatrick from Katie McKee, a back post volley from Rebecca Dougan, a sharp rebound finish from Emma Gregson and a piledriver shot from Caitlyn Lyness. Bann coach Neil Madeley had ensured all his squad had seen action in the first two games and this set them up with a game against Loreto Dalkey to top their group and ensure their progression to the knock-out stages of the cup.
As the light faded Charley Brush set them on their way with a confident finish from a penalty stroke and then Katie McKee weighed in with another top class hat-trick to ensure their progression to the business end of the tournament. To their credit Loreto roared on by their vociferous coach sneaked a goal back near the end but it was Bann who headed on to Monday’s knock out stages.
After a pool recovery session, healthy dinner, and a professionally approached Sunday night it was a determined Bann side that set-off against Omagh Academy in the first of Monday’s quarter-finals. Bann had now taken on the mantle of one of the favourites following their results the previous day and they did not disappoint as they expertly dealt with Omagh’s workrate and organisation to notch up a 5-0 win with a classy 4 goal haul from captain Orla Thompson and an opening goal for Lauren McGaw.
Bann were now through to the semis and in their way trying to derail the Bann express was Salerno from Galway. Bann started off in determined fashion and raced into a 2 goal lead with another goal from Lauren McGaw and an opening goal for the livewire Nadia Benallal. The locals then lost their concentration and allowed the Connaught side back into the game and it was no surprise when Salerno reduced the deficit with a finish from mid-circle from a short corner rebound.
Bann then gathered themselves and saw out the remaining minutes to setup a thrilling final against the other stand-out side, Mary Erskine School from Edinburgh, the reigning Scottish champions. Both sides were littered with international and provincial players and the large crowd that braved the cool but still Glasgow early evening air were to be treated to a final worthy of the venue and encompassed everything that was good with schoolgirl hockey.
The tone was set when after a mere 27 seconds Lauren McGaw expertly picked up a loose pass in the Erskine 25, danced round the last defender and in full stride powered the ball past the Scottish keeper for a quite stunning opening goal. Mary Erskine to their credit then took the game to Bann and were back on level terms within 5 minutes when a quick free eluded the Bann defence and the Scottish forward pounced at the back post to square the scores.
The locals to their credit did not let this affect them and they continued to take the game to the Edinburgh side who were an imposing unit with their strong athletic build towering over some of the smaller Bann players. What Bann lacked in stature they more than made up for it in the skills and tenacity departments. The Lurgan Road side dominated the next 5 minutes and it was no surprise when Charley Brush lashed the ball home from a short corner to re-establish their lead.
Big games deserve big goals and the large crowd were treated to a goal of sublime quality 5 minutes before half time. Nadia Benallal broke past 2 defenders and then skipped round the Edinburgh sweeper but in doing so lost her balance but she still managed to fire in a trademark reverse stick tomahawk shot that flew into the bottom corner of the net as everyone in the ground could only watch with amazement due to its sheer quality.
Bann were now in complete control and playing at a level not seen so far this season and they continued to play with confidence, patience and control for the rest of the game to ensure they were the side celebrating at the final whistle. The celebrations on the pitch as they were presented with the cup will hopefully live long in the memories of the girls as it was a fitting end to a very professional performance from the entire squad.
It was a team effort on and off the pitch and the entire playing squad played their part along with the critical support of the management team in Glasgow, at the school from the headmasters office, and from all the parents. A big thanks must go to Mrs Camblin and Sheree Totton for managing all the team logistics on the way to, from, and in Glasgow. All of this together with the undoubted talent within the squad brought about a tour with a level of performance, professionalism, and pleasure that will stand them in good stead as they approach the business end of the season.