Banbridge Academy Boys’ Hockey 1st XI came so close to winning the All-Ireland Schoolboy Championships for a sixth time in the school’s history when they played Newtown School from Waterford in the final last Friday, but the task proved one step too far. The Academy boys have played in three of the last four finals, being crowned champions when the competition was last held in Ulster in 2015, and they came so close to repeating the feat this year against all the odds.
The Academy lads, ably coached by Simon Jess, got their campaign off to a winning start with a solid 2-0 victory over Ulster rivals Bangor Grammar. The ‘Sinton’s at the Bridge’ and ‘Prentice Portadown’ sponsored Banbridge side dominated large parts of the game and could have scored several more goals. After a superb start to the match at QUB Playing Fields, Bann took the lead from their first penalty corner when Edward Rowe’s drag was deflected over his own keeper by a Bangor defender. Several Bangor penalty corners were well defended by the Bann defence, as they watched their forwards create but miss many good opportunities to increase their lead. The second half continued in a similar vain. Bann continued to play good hockey and when the ball broke to Harry Lockhart on the edge of the circle, he buried his shot through the keepers legs to double Bann’s lead. Some late Bangor pressure was easily dealt with by the Academy defence as the game finished 2-0.
Day 2 saw two more games at QUB. In the first, the Academy played a physical side from Kilkenny College. Despite Kilkenny seeing a lot of possession, the Bann men used the ball well and the dominance of Mark Barlow in midfield saw a comfortable 4-1 victory for the Ulster men, with two goals each for Edward Rowe and Philip Campbell.
Game 2 was the group decider against Dublin powerhouse Wesley College. With huge support from both schools, there was little between the sides but Wesley stole the lead on the stroke of half time from a penalty corner. The second half saw Banbridge having to attack. Despite goal difference in the group being level between the sides, Wesley had scored one more goal so the Academy had to win the game to progress. Penalty corner came and went for Bann and it appeared that their set piece would not fire in this game. However they were completely dominant in attack and two reckless challenges in the Wesley circle were both penalised with penalty strokes awarded. 15 year old Edward Rowe showed his maturity to score both strokes and send the Bann crowd wild as they snatched a place in Friday’s semis as group winners.
With no other local school making it out of their group, Ulster’s hopes in the semi-finals rested with the Academy when they took on record winners St Andrew’s School from Dublin. Bann took an early lead from that man Edward Rowe again, as the penalty corner routine worked this time. St Andrew’s scored either side of half time to go in front, leading to frantic attack play from Bann as they searched for an equaliser. With only a matter of seconds to go, an infringement on the edge of the circle led to a final chance for the Academy as the penalty corner was awarded. Rowe held his nerve and sent the game to a penalty shoot-out as he ripped the ball past the Andrew’s keeper to the delight of the Bann players, staff and supporters. With Irish Under-18 captain in goal for Bann, they were confident going into the shootout that Scott Dale would lead them to victory. Rowe scored the first for the Academy, Mark Barlow was fouled during his run-in by the keeper so a stroke was awarded which Rowe scored. Chris Curry held his nerve to dazzle the keeper as he scored to make it three out of three for Bann. By this stage St Andrew’s had seen Scott Dale save one and another go wide so the pressure was on their fourth taker. He couldn’t beat Dale as the keeper saved to send Bann to the final.
After the drama of the last two games, the legs were sore as Bann prepared for a final against the unknown quantity of Newtown School. The boys from Waterford had never even been to a semi-final before so this was unchartered territory for them. Newtown scored from a penalty corner late in the first half. The Academy struggled throughout the second half to keep their rhythm going as the players tired rapidly after the tough games against the Dublin schools. Newtown were defending for their lives but Bann couldn’t muster enough spirit to dig out an equaliser and Newtown celebrated at the final whistle much to the despair of the valiant Academy lads. Getting to the final and beating some great sides along the way was a fantastic achievement, far beyond the pre-tournament expectations but it just wasn’t to be for Bann.
The challenge now is for the boys to lift themselves for the remainder of their McCullough Cup campaign which continues this week with a match at Cookstown High School.
Squad: Scott Dale(captain), Edward Rowe, Ryan Simms, Lewis Bingham, Charlie Rowe, Mark Barlow(vice-captain), Harry Lockhart, Mark Cowan, Lewis Groves, Philip Campbell, Luke McConnell, Alex Jordan, Louis Rowe, Chris Curry, Matthew Anderson, Harry Farson.
Coach: Simon Jess, Assistant Coach: John Clarke, Manager: Colin Walker