Bann, hosting the blue riband event within Irish schoolgirl hockey for the first time courtesy of their historic win in the Belfast Telegraph Ulster Senior Schoolgirls’ Cup, opened their bid for double glory with a game against the Connacht champions Colaiste Iognaid from Galway. Further games were to follow at Banbridge Hockey Club’s superb complex against the remaining provincial champions on a round robin basis with the leading points scorer being declared Kate Russell Subway All Ireland Champions.
Their opening game was to be a journey into the unknown having not seen the Galway team in action previously. Bann used the opening 10 minutes to settle into competitive action again and to gauge any weaknesses of the visitors. The Galway side were proving to be worthy opponents and their strong direct running kept the home defence on their toes but it was the locals who got the scoreboard working with a goal from a very reliable source after 15 minutes. Katie McKee finishing smartly with a trademark reverse stick shot.
The locals continued to hold the upper hand but just struggled to find the killer pass or finish to translate this dominance into further goals. However, they did find another goal in the second half from Lauren McGaw to confirm their opening win. Next up for the locals was a game against Leinster kingpins Muckross Park and Bann would have to not only battle the South Dublin school but also their fitness levels as they only had a 90 minute break before taking one of their main challengers for the title.
Again the locals eased themselves into the game with a steady start against their fresher opponents and yet again it was the locals who scored the opening goal when captain Orla Thompson finished off a smart move. This stung the visitors into action and Bann net minder Alice Winson had to make several smart saves to keep her side in front. Bann needed a reassurance goal and it duly arrived when Charley Brush crashed home an unstoppable shot from a second half short corner to put some daylight between the sides.
The Dubliners then threw the proverbial kitchen sink at Bann but Winson stood firm and saved all that was thrown at her. Bann were glad, tired, but content to hear the final whistle and were whisked away for a well-earned recovery session at Bann Cryospa to rest their weary limbs. However, they knew that all was still to play for as Kilkenny College topped the table at the end of day 1 courtesy of scoring one more goal than Bann in their opening 2 games.
All the teams and officials gathered later that night at the tournament dinner venue, Sintons at the Bridge, for a superb meal and little did anyone know of the drama that was to unfold at Havelock Park the following day. It was five tired teams that retired to their respective bases to gather their efforts for their remaining two games. One fixture stood out and that was the second game of the day when Bann were scheduled to take on Kilkenny.
Victory for either side would put them in pole position with only 1 game remaining. On a glorious Spring morning a large vociferous crown waited with expectation as the 2 sides lined up ready to do battle in a game that was to be captivating from start to finish. The locals for the first time this season seemed to let the occasion get to them and this allowed Kilkenny to dominate the opening exchanges and it came as no surprise when they opening the scoring after 15 minutes when their centre forward spun and fired an unstoppable shot past Winson in the Bann goal.
Bann managed to get to half time and the sanctuary of their dugout without conceding any further goals having been really challenged for the first time all season for the entire half. Bann, however, are made of stern stuff and it was a different side that lined up for the second half and they signalled their intent with a short corner after only 5 minutes and a superb routine saw captain Orla Thompson deflect a Charley Brush pinpoint pass into the roof of the net. It was now game on as both sides went about taking the lead.
The next 20 minutes were a roller coaster ride for both teams and their supporters as play swung from end to end and contained missed opportunities for both sides, a penalty flick claim for the locals, and a game were no quarter was given by either side. A decisive goal was not forthcoming and a share of the spoils was a worthy way to end a game that was a superb advert for Irish schoolgirl hockey packed with passion, commitment, skill and respect.
It was now all down to the last 2 games with Kilkenny taking on Muckross first and then Bann taking on Ursuline College Thurles with Bann needing to beat Kilkenny’s result in their last game. Numerous possibilities still existed with the dreaded penalty flicks becoming very much an unlikely way to decide the winners.
When Kilkenny took the lead against Muckross, it looked like the locals were going to have to go on a goal hunt in their final game but to their credit Muckross hung in and slowly began to get some belief as Kilkenny tired and perhaps started to think ahead of the enormity of this result. Sport will always throw up the unexpected and so it happened when Muckross equalised with only 5 minutes left on the clock just as it seemed that Kilkenny might get s second goal.
Try as they might Kilkenny could not dig out another goal as the final whistle signalled the end of their challenge leaving Bann with it all to do with only a win guaranteeing them top spot. A dejected Kilkenny team left the pitch knowing that their fate now rested with the girls from Thurles. Bann knew any win was enough and if it took the last minute to achieve this then they were content to play a patient game. How wrong that was to prove to be!
When Katie McKee was the only player to touch the ball after she fired her side into the lead after only 10 seconds straight from the pass back Bann were in full flight. Further goals flowed from Orla Thompson with 2 sublime finishes from well-rehearsed short corner moves and an open play goal to complete a first half hat trick. Thurles to their credit fired in a superb short corner strike to briefly halt the Bann express but another goal from Lauren McGaw saw the Lurgan Road outfit complete the half with an unbelievable 5-1 lead.
Bann perhaps lost concentration to allow Thurles to sneak another goal back but normal service was resumed when Nadia Benallal finished neatly from close range to complete the scoring with Bann securing the victory that saw crowned All Ireland champions. The entire squad saw action in the second half to soak up some of the competitive action and they all were part of the mass celebration when the hooter sounded at the end of the match.
The perfect end to a perfect season – historic on all fronts and one that will live long in the memory of the squad, management team, parents and school management! As captain Orla Thompson raised the small but never the less in meaning All Ireland trophy the cheer could be heard the full length of the Lurgan Road! Sincere thanks from the team go to the coach (Neil Madeley), the team manager (Mrs Joanne Derby), the Headmaster (Mr Robin McLoughlin), their parents, supporters, volunteers, sponsors, Subway, physios, ABC council, Banbridge Hockey Club, Ulster and Irish Hockey and their team management unit. Well done girls you did us proud!