St Catherine’s 5-11 St Ciaran’s 1-3
Richard Bullick reports
Underdogs St Catherine’s College claimed their first ever Ulster Schools A title in emphatic fashion by crushing St Ciaran’s Ballygawley with a superb performance in the Magherafelt final.
Only promoted to the top tier this season on the back of winning the B competition, St Catherine’s reached the A final by dethroning All Ireland champions Loreto College Cavan and went on to make history in stunning style.
Two early goals got the cathedral city side off to a flying start at the Mid Ulster Sports Arena and they never looked back, keeping their Tyrone opponents to just one paltry point in the opening period and going on to win by the remarkable margin of 20.
Exciting prospect Casey Mullan led the way with 2-3 and there were also significant contributions from vice-captain Eva Lambe and Tullysaran’s Hannah Duffy, but this was a great team effort from coach Ciara Marley’s side.
Those early majors from Duffy, who finished with 1-2, and Mullan gave St Catherine’s the perfect platform and they kept attacking confidently, reeling off four unanswered points with Lambe joining the goal scorers in raising white flags.
Against opponents from her native county, Moy’s Lucy McAlary played a real captain’s part for St Catherine’s, setting a fine example in pressing forward with purpose and tirelessly tracking back throughout the game.
Her hard work was rewarded when she pushed up on a Ballygawley kick-out towards the end of the first half, dispossessed her opponent and hit the St Ciaran’s net, with Tir na nOg’s Lambe landing another point before the break which came with the scoreline 3-5 to 0-1.
“Keeping a good Ballygawley team to just one point in the first half reflects the fact our backline were outstanding. There were absolutely amazing defensive displays from players like Emily Druse, Caitlin McCormack and full back Aoife Boyle, who won Player of the Match,” says manager Marley.
“Aoife was unbelievable but she got great support at the back, including from Emma Conroy and Aobh McGleenan, who have been brilliant new additions to the panel since we won the Ulster B title last season. Emma is versatile and tenacious and nothing will get in her way when she sees the ball.
“I also must mention our midfielders, for Maeve Ferguson and Cliodhna Campbell showed unreal stamina getting up and down the field all day, defending, play-making and setting up scores.”
The one-way traffic continued initially in the second half with St Catherine’s registering the first two scores before the Ballygawley girls got their only goal of the game, with Chloe Kelly a little unlucky in nets.
Identified by the coach as one of the team’s big leaders along with skipper McAlary and the Harps pair of Mullan and Druse, promising Mullabrack keeper Kelly had a relatively quiet afternoon but constantly communicated well with those in front of her.
The Ballygawley goal didn’t spark a St Ciaran’s comeback as St Catherine’s continued their dominant display and outscored their opponents 2-4 to just two points in the remainder of the game with Mullan netting again and Lambe also scoring a goal after a high ball was dropped in.
Lambe, who hit 1-4, went off injured to be replaced by Millie Hughes while the latter’s Tir na nOg clubmate Caitlin Smith had taken over from Aoife Mallon at the start of the second half and later Leah Gribbin came on in place of McGleenan.
Half backs Clia Creaney of Tir na nOg and Ballyhegan’s McCormack, daughter of former Armagh panellist Brenda, both got on the scoreboard in the second period with Marley hailing the latter as “a brilliant player all year, consistently strong and getting better with every game she plays.”
The St Catherine’s starting team was completed by wing forward Ella Reid, like Campbell part of an emerging generation bringing Lurgan club Clan na Gael success at underage level, but who attends school in Armagh.
Incidentally, St Catherine’s had got their campaign underway with a comprehensive victory over Lurgan’s St Ronan’s, the biggest school in Northern Ireland with a catchment area which includes the county’s most successful ladies gaelic club, Clann Eireann.
In their second group game, St Catherine’s were well beaten by St Ciaran’s Ballygawley on a cold, wet day in Augher but secured runners-up place in the pool with a 6-6 to 4-5 win over St Patrick’s Academy Dungannon followed by beating Our Lady and St Patrick’s College Knock.
Coming second meant facing the table toppers from the other group, Loreto College Cavan, in the semi-finals and Marley admits the Armagh girls were complete underdogs against a school with exceptional pedigree.
“I think Loreto Cavan did a clean sweep of All Ireland A titles last year at Under 14, Under 16 and Senior level so we were total outsiders, having only been in the B grade last season. It was a really miserable day in Clones but we won by four points to reach the A final for the first time in our history.”
Their opponents in the final, St Ciaran’s Ballygawley, are also regarded as heavyweights of the Ulster Schools scene and are coached by Tyrone captain Neamh Woods, who recently was awarded her second All Star, won All Ireland Player of the Year and skippered Ulster in last month’s interpro tournament.
Commonwealth Games netballer Woods has captained Tyrone to three Ulster Intermediate titles in a row and lifted the All Ireland Intermediate trophy in Croke Park in September but her hopes of a coaching triumph to put the icing on the cake of a great year were shattered.
Ironically, Woods’ Orchard captaincy counterpart Caoimhe Morgan is a PE teacher in St Catherine’s so the two might have been going head to head here but it is the latter’s sister-in-law Ciara Marley who manages the Armagh school’s gaelic football teams.
“I’d had some success with the camogie teams in school, winning a couple of Ulster titles, and only took on the footballers in September last year. It’s been a while since St Catherine’s won any football accolades and I promised to do all in my power to get them on the map.
“The Seniors won the Ulster C title last season and the Under 16s won the B title but to now make history by winning this Ulster Under 16 A title is certainly my proudest moment as a school coach,” reflects Ciara.
Kelly, Mullan, Druse and McAlary were all starting for the school’s senior side in that Ulster final last season, in which they beat St Clare’s of Ballyjamesduff, with Lambe and Pearse Og’s Boyle being subs.
In addition, McCormack and Creaney both started the Under 16 B final in which St Catherine’s hammered Letterkenny’s Loreto 5-17 to 1-5 while Reid, Duffy and Gribben benched along with a trio of unused subs this time, Leah Donnelly, Nicole Hughes and Natalie Hughes.
Although a significant nucleus of last season’s Ulster B title-winning Under 16s remained, supplemented by McAlary who missed that second tier final due to injury, Marley had to replace significant figures including the then captain Clara Conlon, Tierna McVeigh, Aoife Reid, Megan McShane, Caoimhe Donnelly and Aisling McGrane.
However a dozen of this successful St Catherine’s squad are part of Armagh age group panels, including a quartet who featured as the Orchard won Ulster B titles at Under 14 in 2017 and Under 16 this year.
Goalkeeper Kelly, Mullan, Creaney and Under 14 county captain Druse all started both finals while St Catherine’s full back Boyle lined out in this season’s Under 16 decider for Armagh and won the county Player of the Year award for that age group.
Armagh Under 14 Player of the Year McCormack also looks to have a bright future as does Under 15 Player of the Year Duffy while Lambe, Reid, Ferguson, McGleenan and Smith have had Orchard county call-ups and McAlary and Conroy represent Tyrone.
Including Moy, there were no fewer than nine clubs represented in the St Catherine’s starting team for the Ulster Under 16 A final, Armagh Harps leading the way with three and Ballyhegan, Tir na nOg and Clan na Gael also having two each.
Pearse Og only had one starter but three on the bench like Tir na nOg, whose sub contingent included Meabh Loughran and Mullabrack had Fiadhna Hughes as an unused sub in addition to Kelly in the team. Grange and Tullysaran supplied one starting team member apiece while Harps had a fourth player benching.
Mullan and Druse were part of the Armagh Harps side which pushed eventual title winners Carrickcruppen to the limit in this season’s Senior Championship quarter-final while Kelly helped new Armagh Junior champions Mullabrack claim their first ever silverware in September.
Considering St Catherine’s hadn’t had any provincial success in gaelic football at Senior or Under 16 level since 2009, three Ulster trophies in the past 12 months is a real purple patch and this team is now dreaming of All Ireland glory after Christmas.
Last season, Mullan had the distinction of picking up three Ulster Schools winners medals across the two codes, winning Player of the Match in the Under 16 B football final and additionally being on the losing side for the school’s camogie counterparts.
Although still just 15 and relatively short in stature, the multi-talented Mullan is a physically strong and confident forward who was recently awarded an Ulster Schools camogie All Star and few would bet against her doubling up for football in the years ahead.
ST CATHERINE’S COLLEGE UNDER 16s: Chloe Kelly (Mullabrack); Aoife Mallon (Grange), Aoife Boyle (Pearse Og), Aobh McGleenan (Armagh Harps); Emily Druse (Armagh Harps), Caitlin McCormack (Ballyhegan; 0-1), Clia Creaney (Tir na nOg; 0-1); Cliodhna Campbell (Clan na Gael), Maeve Ferguson (Ballyhegan); Ella Reid (Clan na Gael), Casey Mullan (Armagh Harps; 2-3), Lucy McAlary (Moy, capt; 1-0); Eva Lambe (Tir na nOg; 1-4), Hannah Duffy (Tullysaran; 1-2), Emma Conroy (Moy). Subs used: Caitlin Smith (Tir na nOg) for Mallon, Leah Gribbin (Pearse Og) for McGleenan, Millie Hughes (Tir na nOg) for Lambe. Subs: Meabh Loughran (Tir na nOg), Leah Donnelly (Armagh Harps), Nicole Hughes (Pearse Og), Natalie Hughes (Pearse Og), Fiadhna Hughes (Mullabrack).