McCORMACK PRIMED FOR NEW CAMPAIGN
Conditions last Wednesday evening may have been far from pleasant thanks to Storm Dudley but St Catherine’s College sixth former Caitlin McCormack was still delighted to be heading out to Armagh Minors training during her half-term break.
As someone who absolutely loves her sport and has a natural resilience honed by playing with and against adults from an early age, the 17-year-old isn’t the type to be bothered by a bit of bad weather.
More than that though, she wants no stone to be left unturned in seeking to ensure Armagh Minors, managed by former Orchard hero Ger Reid and Anthony Farrell, are ready to put their best foot forward for what will be an historic occasion this weekend.
McCormack’s crew will have the honour of being the first Orchard team to play a competitive match at Armagh LGFA’s new dedicated base of McKeever Park at Killean when they host Down in Sunday’s Ulster Minor Championship opener (2pm).
The ambitious Ballyhegan girl isn’t just a hungry young player who wants to keep progressing in her sport but also someone who has a sense of the bigger picture and is appreciative of all who have helped bring Armagh ladies football to where it is.
Grateful for fantastic facilities which other counties don’t have and the calibre of role models to look up to in the Orchard’s current senior squad, McCormack knows the Minors underachieved last season and she wants them to make amends this time round.
Well beaten by a surprisingly good Antrim team in the Athletic Grounds, Armagh then defeated Down in last summer’s second group game but ended up finishing sixth in the province, a disappointing placing which has come back to bite them.
Normally, all nine counties compete in a single tier at age group level in Ulster but, this time, the bottom four from last year have been placed in a separate section to the rest, so the Orchard can’t better last season’s underwhelming ranking even if they win all four fixtures.
Being split off from the main Ulster Minor Championship isn’t something McCormack is overly enamoured about, but the silver lining of being grouped with Down, Derry and Fermanagh is that Armagh should have an excellent chance of picking up a trophy in 2022.
“On paper we’re up against the weaker teams in Ulster this season, but we must make that count in terms of beating what’s in front of us and securing the opportunity for next year’s squad to be in the top tier if that format remains,” reflects Caitlin.
“Because of the pandemic, there was so little lead-in time for the Minors last season. I don’t think we were prepared enough for that first fixture and a strong Antrim team caught us cold. We didn’t perform against Tyrone later and overall failed to show what we were capable of.
“I really don’t care about bad weather at this time of year, I’m just delighted things are back to normal this season in terms of scheduling because that has meant we can prepare properly in advance of the Ulster Championship.
“Just from looking at the trials list I felt we should have good squad depth this year. There’s plenty of talent there and all the girls are really committed along with the management. We’re looking forward to the games getting going and especially playing at McKeever Park.”
A pandemic which came along when she was just 15 has taken up a significant chunk of Caitlin’s life to date but she’s philosophical about the past two years and thankful for the highs which have still proved possible along with what she had achieved even earlier.
Although just 14 at the time, McCormack was an influential figure in the St Catherine’s Under 16s who became the first female team from any Orchard county school to be crowned All Ireland champions in any gaelic code back in April 2019.
“That was so special, probably the best experience of my life. We were just like a big family and everyone enjoyed being together so much that, along we worked really hard, it didn’t even feel like commitment,” she enthuses.
“The relationship between coaches Ciara and Paddy Marley and the players was brilliant. We all understood each other and that made for an environment in which everyone really flourished and performed to their best. That bond is something we’ll always share.
“It’s unfortunate that team didn’t get a crack at senior success as a group before the older girls left but, on the other hand, with what has happened since, I’m so thankful we weren’t denied the chance to win with the Under 16s.
“When the pandemic came initially, everything just stopped for a number of months and that was strange but then it was good to get back playing and things haven’t been as bad since. I know some other sports have had far bigger gaps at club level than gaelic football.
“With Mrs Marley on maternity leave, Armagh footballer Fionnuala McKenna was our manager this season in school. We were playing at Ulster A level and came top of our group but were beaten by Our Lady’s Castleblaney in the semi-final.
“We had a good team and were reasonably confident but lost by 10 and have to acknowledge they were just stronger on the day anyway,” says McCormack, with typical candour.
Four more of that All Ireland-winning team earned Ulster Schools All Stars this winter, with McCormack’s clubmate Maeve Ferguson, Hannah Duffy, Clia Creaney and Emma Conroy joining previous recipients Casey Mullan, Emily Druse and Chloe Kelly.
“I want to the first All Stars trial in the autumn but didn’t get called back. It was a bit disheartening, but I didn’t dwell too much on it. I still have another year at school so there will be one more opportunity to make the grade.”
Highlighted by St Catherine’s as one of the school’s top performing pupils in terms of good GCSE grades last summer, McCormack is doing Politics, Biology and Health and Social Care at A-level but has yet to decide what she would like to study at university.
Another example of how it’s possible for young people to achieve academic and sporting success combined, by being energised and having good time management, Caitlin cites old St Catherine’s team-mate, and now Queen’s medical student, Druse as a good role model.
On the footballing front, it’s inspiring for McCormack that her club captain Eve Lavery and another Ballyhegan girl Grace Ferguson have been first choice starters in the Armagh senior side which has won consecutive Ulster titles the past two seasons.
“I’ve followed Armagh ladies since I was very young, and my mum was in the county panel for a while (in 2015), so I’ve always watched closely. Now I’m seeing girls I play alongside at club level holding their own against top players from all over Ireland which is very exciting.
“People look at Ballyhegan as quite a small club, but Eve has been representing us with Armagh for ages, Grace got into the team two seasons ago when she was still a teenager and now her sister Maeve is up into the senior squad too while still a schoolgirl.
“Having them there is good for our club and especially younger girls including myself who would hope to push through ourselves in the years ahead. They’re such talented footballers but we also see what work they have to put in and it’s important to understand that.”
Ballyhegan girls Maeve Ferguson and McCormack picked up the Armagh Minors Player of the Year awards for last season, reflecting their efforts during that chastening campaign and how they fought hard even in adversity.
“I was playing wing half back and got put on Antrim’s top player and captain Theresa Mellon, who went on to play for their senior team in Croke Park later in the year. It was tough going but you want to challenge yourself against good opponents.”
Although 2021 was a lean year in county colours, McCormack enjoyed double delight in age group football with Ballyhegan last season as the Davitts achieved championship success both at Under 16 and Minor level.
“The two finals were about a month apart, so it was busy but great. With the Under 16s we beat Dromintee to take the trophy in Pearse Og under a management team of Joey Murphy, Paul McGrane, Stephen McGrane and Jarlath McQuade.
“People probably thought Ballyhegan didn’t stand a chance in the Armagh Minor Championship, which has just two tiers, but that same management took on the team and just tweaked and adapted things to suit that slightly changed group.
“We got to the final in Abbey Park and had a very hard match against Silverbridge. We were five points down with about eight minutes to go but battled back and took the match to extra-time.
“It was still level at the end of that so went to a free-kicks contest. That shootout came down to the last two takers. Rachel McGrane got her kick over but then the Silverbridge player’s free dropped just under the bar into the net, which obviously doesn’t count unlike in a match.
“Of course, we were delighted to win but I definitely felt bad for the Silverbridge girl. It was tough to watch. I’d had to take a free myself so know what pressure went with it. I’d prefer frees to penalties, but I think there should be replays for finals if at all possible.
“A few years ago with the Under 14s for school we drew with St Ciaran’s Ballygawley up at the Mid-Ulster Sports Arena in Cookstown and that went to a replay. Shootouts are stressful, especially for young players and with a crowd there and a lot riding on the result.
“I know timetables maybe were even tighter last season because it started late due to the pandemic so I’m not blaming anybody, but a lot of hard work goes into getting to finals. Winning is so special and losing is so tough in normal circumstances never mind that way.”
McCormack tasted decider defeat at adult level when Ballyhegan lost the 2020 Armagh Intermediate Championship final against Lissummon, compounded by the then 16-year-old being sent off in the closing stages for a high tackle on county forward Catherine Marley.
Catching someone under the chin in rugby would attract a similar sanction these days on duty of care ground regardless of intent, so although there was clearly no malice involved it was slightly surprising when McCormack’s straight red card was subsequently rescinded.
However, what spoke volumes for McCormack’s character and the high regard in which she is held was her own mortified reaction and the solidarity shown by opposing players towards her in the immediate aftermath of an unfortunate accident.
Nobody was going to think any the less of this young gem either way and, likewise, this correspondent didn’t feel any need to gloss over what happened because of Caitlin’s tender age as she’s an intelligent girl of considerable substance, capable of processing context.
McCormack is an impressively respectful, pragmatic teenager with well-developed views which she can express effectively with down-to-earth honesty, and a keen student of lades gaelic football who takes a great interest in everything that’s happening.
After being beaten by Lissummon and her personal red card anguish, Ballyhegan being presented with the Division Three trophy on the field after that Intermediate final was a bitter-sweet feeling for McCormack.
“We’d wrapped up the league title a few weeks earlier and were pleased to have won it at the time. It was nice to get our hands on the trophy and we appreciated the presentation but it’s hard to smile for photos straight after losing a championship final!” she reflects wryly.
She’ll have an important part to play as Ballyhegan push hard for the Intermediate title later in the year but for now McCormack’s full focus is on Armagh Minors and this opening game against Down which will set the tone for the campaign ahead.
“These are exciting times for Armagh football on and off the field. The senior squad has so many brilliant footballers and we want to put our best foot forward and show that there’s more talent coming through underneath,” concludes one of the Orchard’s brightest starlets.