Provincial glory for Mayo school
By John Coyle
The NUIG Connacht GAA aerodrome in Bekan will undoubtedly play host to countless more Connacht finals in the coming years but they will all struggle to replicate the thrills and spills of Tuesday's encounter. As captain Ava Kelly tried to make her victory speech heard over the air blowing through the dome, all in attendance took the time to catch some of that air after a breathless ending to a historic encounter. After losing two consecutive finals at this grade, Sacred Heart School finally won, in the process becoming the first team to win a provincial title in any code in an indoor stadium.
The level of intensity in the game betrayed the fact the two sides knew they were fighting for a piece of history. There was a ferocious pace to proceedings, with both teams going full tilt from the off.
After a nervous start by both, Sacred Heart eventually settled and edged themselves ahead with two well taken frees from Saoirse Byrne. However, any notion that this would become a procession was swiftly knocked on the head, as a long-range effort by the Mercy Convent dipped in under the crossbar, to send the Roscommon side into the lead. Points from Larissa Kelly and Chloe Chambers pushed Sacred Heart back in front but Mercy again struck a good goal to regain the advantage. It could have been much worse in fact but for Eleana Chambers, who expertly saved a penalty, to keep the team from Roscommon to just the two goals.
By the first water break, Mercy Convent were good value for their three points lead. A sin bin for each side had added some extra spice but both teams returned to their full complement early in the second quarter.
Aoife Gannon seemingly emerged from the water break more alert than any other player on the pitch - a marauding run through the heart of the Roscommon defence culminated in her unleashing an unstoppable shot from 25 metres into the top corner of the net. By this point the half back line of Lisa Hastings, Éabha Carney and Carla Palasz were motoring, driving up the pitch every chance they got. Roscommon did manage to nudge themselves back in front once more but a single from Hannah Sheehy ensured that the sides went in all-square at the break.
The Roscommon side were utterly dominant for the majority of the third quarter but an incredible defensive display from Heidi O'Malley and sisters, Grace and Alana McDonnell, meant that only a penalty and two frees were tagged on by Mercy Convent. They would live to regret not making their dominance count for more, as Sacred Heart moved the ball up the pitch in the seconds before the water break. A high ball in saw Christina McEvilly soar above the Roscommon keeper to palm the ball to the net.
The goal seemed to suck the life out of the Roscommon side and galvanised the Mayo girls for the final quarter. The tireless trio of Ava Kelly, Ava Palasz and Hannah Sheehy grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and drove the team on. McEvilly chose those last twenty minutes to really burst into life, helping to make the crowd believe the win was on. Another long-range score from Aoife Gannon, immediately after the water break, was followed up by a second goal from McEvilly, who finished from a seemingly impossible angle, to push Sacred Heart four points clear.
However, the Roscommon side still weren’t finished and again hit back with a major, leaving the gap at the bare minimum with only a few minutes left on the clock. But the Sacred Heart girls would not be denied, as a quick kickout by Eleana Chambers was worked up the pitch to McEvilly, who added another great goal by rounding the goalkeeper, to complete an incredible (and historic) hat trick. This was quickly followed by a point from the boot of Saoirse Byrne, to push the gap out to five. The Mercy side knew they needed another goal to have any hope of a comeback and they came within a whisker of getting it but the shot fizzed narrowly over the bar.
When Galway referee PJ Rabbitte blew the final whistle, it was met with elation from the Mayo side and utter devastation for the team from Roscommon. In truth, both sides could be proud of the absolute exhibition of skill they displayed in this finest of arenas. The intensity and physical fitness from start to finish was outstanding for such young players and but for some heroic defending on both sides, the scores would have been a lot higher. This was a game for the ages, that left us guessing the winner until the end. On to the All-Ireland semi-finals for the Westport side, where they will hope to continue writing history.
Sacred Heart School, Westport: E. Chambers, H. O'Malley, G. McDonnell, A McDonnell, É. Carney, L. Hastings, C. Palasz, A. Kelly (capt), H. Sheehy (0-2), Aoife Gannon (1-2), A. Palasz, L. Kelly (0-1), C. Chambers (0-1), S. Byrne (0-3, 3f), C. McEvilly (3-0). Subs: A. Meaney, M. Ní Dhonnabháin, M. Tunney, S. Rowan, K. Moran, S. Finnegan, Aoibheann Chambers, F. Shackleton, Anna Chambers, H. Cox, L. O'Grady, M. O'Malley, Aoife Gannon.