ULSTER were denied a second successive Under-18 inter-provincial title in heart breaking circumstances in Dublin on Sunday as Leinster lifted the trophy in dramatic fashion.
Robbie McMinn’s girls were leading 1-0 with just nine seconds left and looking likely to retain the silverware only for the hosts to score a last-gasp equaliser and then win the subsequent penalty shoot-out.
The Ulster U16s also finished second but in more satisfying circumstances as a goal from Portadown College’s Lucy Craig gave them a decisive 1-0 win over Munster on Sunday.
In the U18 decider, Banbridge Academy’s Ellen Reid put Ulster ahead in the first half when she converted a rebound after her initial shot was saved but Sarah McAuley hit the equaliser from the last play of the match from a penalty corner to force the shoot-out. That, like the game itself, turned out to be a nerve-jangling affair as it went to sudden death, Leinster eventually prevailing on a 3-2 scoreline after seven rounds of one-on-ones between striker and goalkeeper.
On Saturday, Ulster made it three wins from three starts as they defeated South East 1-0 with a second half goal scored by Ballyclare High’s Niamh McIvor after beating Connacht 5-0 and Munster 3-1 on Friday. The Under-16s had opened with a shoot-out win over South East on Friday night and then beat Connacht 2-0 on Saturday with goals from Craig and Ella Armstrong. However, they then went down to a late goal against Leinster after a battling display and, by that stage, the hosts had made it three from three and the title was theirs. That left Ulster and Munster playing off for second place and Craig’s penalty corner strike six minutes before half-time sealed the win that meant Joel Cathcart’s team finished one place higher than last season.
Ulster talent coach Shirley McCay said there were plenty of positives to reflect on for both Ulster squads after a gruelling schedule that involved playing four matches in three days. “It was really disappointing for the U16s not to win the tournament after conceding only one goal through the four games and that was with three minutes to go against Leinster.,” she said. “It was an incredible effort from the coaching staff Joel, Alex Speers, Carolyn Burns and Sharon Moffett after an extensive programme that started in March and has seen them travel to Holland, Scotland, play UK Lions in Belfast in August and culminating in the inter-pros at the weekend.
“The girls under Joel’s influence are playing a style of hockey at U16 level that hasn’t been seen before, they move the ball well, show flair when needed, and showed a maturity tactically beyond their young years.
“I hope that is reflected in the number of players we get moving through the ranks and representing Ireland next year. “For the U18s, it was a devastating way to lose a tournament, unbeaten going into last game against Leinster and going one up to a well taken goal by Ellen, who had a fantastic tournament. “With nine seconds to go, we conceded a corner and the subsequent goal sent us into the shootout but all credit to Leinster on showing a lot of character. “Again, under Robbie, the girls have had an extensive year, travelling for games against England in Lilleshall, Wales in Wrexham, then winning gold in the UK School Games in Loughborough and finishing with the tournament in Dublin. “They were incredibly upset after the game which shows how much this meant to them and the commitment given to get there. “For quite a few of the U18 girls, this is likely to be their last appearance for Ulster and they have been involved in our programmes for four or five years. “It has been very special for me to have watched their development both as people and players over this period of time and I hope they continue their journey in hockey for many years to come. “Finally a massive thank you to all of our underage coaching staff who have showed commitment and passion equal to that of the players.”
Meanwhile, at domestic level, Ballymoney are the early Premier League pace setters after a hard-fought 3-2 win over Dungannon at the Royal School left them with maximum points from two games. Former Ireland striker Nikki Parke was the hat-trick heroine for the visitors, who led twice in the first half only to be pegged back on both occasions. Goals from sisters Jill and Karen Elliott saw Dungannon draw level at the break, before Parke struck the winner from a penalty corner. However, Money are only too aware that it’s very early days yet as they bid to maintain the momentum and avoid the slump that ended their chances of a top-three finish last season.
Midfielder Aine Kearney said: ” We want to be in the mix at the top of the table when it comes to the business end of the season. ” “Last season, we started really strongly and won our first nine or 10 games in a row but we failed to maintain the run and push on from it.”
In the only other top flight game, Lisnagarvey defeated the other newly-promoted side Ballymena 4-2 to seal their first points of the campaign after both teams had lost their opening fixtures. Three of Garvey’s new recruits got among the goals as Irish international Robyn Chambers, who played in the EYHL with Belfast Harlequins last season, was joined on the scoresheet by Kerry McIlwaine and Dawn Axon with Rachel Houston also on target. Ballymena, who had opened with a 3-0 loss to Ballymoney, replied through Becky Reynolds and Kirsten Young.
In the Senior Cup, there were wins for Club KV, Castle, North Down and Raphoe. KV made it two from two after beating Priorians 3-1, Castle defeated Armagh 2-0, North Down were 4-0 winners over Coleraine while Raphoe beat Portadown 2-0.
Under-18 inter-pros (Three Rock): Friday: South East 1 Leinster 2; Ulster 5 (M Dougan 2, H Dougan, J Hood, O Mullan) Connacht 0; Munster 1 Ulster 3 (N Benallal, O Mullan, E Reid); Saturday: Leinster 2 Munster 0; South East 1 Connacht 0; South East 0 Ulster 1 (N McIvor); Leinster 5 Connacht 1; Sunday: South East 0 Munster 2; Leinster 1 Ulster 1 (E Reid) (Leinster won shoot-out).
Under-16 inter-pros: Friday: Leinster 3 Connacht 0; South East 0 Ulster 0 (Ulster won shoot-out); Munster 0 Leinster 3; Saturday: Ulster 2 (L Craig, E Armstrong Connacht 0; South East 1 Munster 3; Leinster 1 Ulster 0; South East 1 Connacht 0; Sunday: Connacht 1 Munster 3; South East 0 Leinster 4; Ulster 1 (L Craig) Munster 0.
Ulster Premier League: Ballymena 2 (B Reynolds, K Young) Lisnagarvey 4 (D Axon, R Houston, K McIlwaine, R Chambers); Ballymomey 3 (N Parke 3) Dungannon 2 (K Elliott, J Elliott); Senior Cup: Pool A: Club KV 2 (C Houston 2, J Orr) Priorians 1 (E Allen); North Down 4 (K Sinclair, R Lucas, S Lewis, L Brown) Coleraine 0; Pool B: Castle 2 (N Winters, E McMaw) Armagh 0; Portadown 0 Raphoe 2 (W Patterson 2).