Tyrone juvenile handball teams make history in Croke Park
History was made in Croke Park on Saturday when Tyrone returned home with twelve gold medals after capturing the national boys and girls juvenile team titles in wonderful style.
The Tyrone boys team of Michéal McCrystal, Ronan McCrystal, Eoin Daly, Owen Kelly, Damhán Meenagh and Eolann Kelly produced brilliant performances to see off Cork and Wexford in the U12/U13 Team of Six softball championship.
And the girls team of Aimee Fox, Emma Conway, Alice McGlinchey, Lucy McCullagh, Caislin Tracey and Laura Duff pulled off a sensational interprovincial success by pipping Munster and Leinster to the title in the colours of Ulster.
The girls win was historic as this title had never come to Ulster before in the 60×30 code and the Ulster team was exclusively made up of Tyrone players, including four Greencastle girls and two Loughmacrory girls.
It was the boys team, which contained five Loughmacrory players and one Carrickmore representative, who brought the first silverware to Tyrone on a busy programme of handball at the new state of the art national centre.
It had been more than a decade since Tyrone had lifted this title but hopes were high that the county had a team capable of beating the Munster and Leinster champions.
The Tyrone lads had been paired off in doubles teams a month ago and had trained hard for this event and each pairing went on to give an exhibition of doubles play on the day. Every player excelled in Croke Park and they brushed aside the Cork semi final challenge on a scoreline of 90-24, sealing their place in the final against the title favourites Wexford.
Wexford had shown their potential when they disposed of Kilkenny 90-15 in the Leinster final but the Tyrone lads were in top form and were relishing the challenge.
The McCrystal brothers were the first pairing on the court for Tyrone in the All Ireland final and their contest with the highly talented Charlie Roche and his partner turned out to be the most thrilling encounter of the whole day, packed with high quality serving, passing and shooting.
Ronan McCrystal was the youngest member of the Tyrone team but he played magnificently and his brother Michéal lived up to all his potential with a wonderful display of passing and killing.
The strong Wexford duo had been expected to give their team a head start but after an epic battle it was Tyrone who emerged with a huge psychological victory by winning 15-13, 15-14.
This opening game set the tone for the final and in the next game, Owen Kelly and Eoin Daly followed on from the McCrystal brothers with another top class display. Owen’s serving was fantastic and he threw in some delicious sidearm kills to show his all round quality, while Eoin produced the game of his life at the front of the court with some delightful flying and finishing.
Tyrone almost had the title in the bag at this stage but the last doubles team of Damhán Meenagh and Eolann Kelly was determined to finish the job off in style and they delivered another sparkling performance to clinch the title, both players really enjoying the big occasion with some tremendous shooting.
In the end it was an emphatic Tyrone victory and a clear message that Tyrone handball has a few exciting years ahead in the All Ireland juvenile championships.
The Tyrone girls had to see off high quality opposition from Munster and Leinster to win the interprovincial title but they rose to the challenge in magnificent style.
On paper the Ulster team was backboned by the three recent All Ireland champions, Greencastle’s Caislin Tracey and Loughmacrory pair, Laura Duff and Lucy McCullagh.
But it wasn’t going to be possible to win this title without a massive contribution from the other three members of the team, Greencastle trio Alice McGlinchey, Aimee Fox and the youngest team member, Emma Conway.
The clash between Ulster and Munster early in the day produced an amazing standard and incredibly after 6 games up to 15 aces, it resulted in a 74-74 draw.
The final doubles match between Laura and Caislin and the highly talented Munster pairing of Carmel Kelleher (Cork) and Claire Manogue (Clare) had the large crowd on the edge of their seats with the quality of the rallies and it came right down to the final point before a draw was secured by the Ulster girls.
This meant that Ulster had to outscore the favourites Munster against Leinster and it became a tall order when Munster rattled off 77 points against the Leinster girls.
So the final match of the day was to decide everything as Ulster set out needing at least 77 aces to stay in the running.
Emma and Aimee went first as the U13 pair and they faced a really hard battle against the Leinster girls but they showed character and skill in abundance as they fought back in both games to claim the 30 points they needed to give their team a huge start.
Lucy and Alice were also up against it in the U15 doubles match but after losing their opener 15-11, they stepped up their efforts even more in the second game to secure the 15 points they were looking for, earning their team 26 points in total. Lucy produced patches of brilliance and Alice played the best handball of her life as they pushed the Ulster team closer to a famous victory.
It was all down to Laura and Caislin in the U17 doubles match at the end of a long day and although they faced a formidable duo of Leah Ryan (Carlow) and Holly Byrne (Kilkenny), the Tyrone girls are two of the most exciting prospects in the country and they showed why with a really classy display which secured the maximum 30 points, giving Ulster a final tally from the Leinster fixture of 86 points.
After some controversy over the scoring system to decide the winners, Ulster were declared the rightful champions with an aggregate score of 160 points from their two matches, with Munster taking second spot with 151 points.
The twelve Tyrone players left Croke Park after a nine hour day of handball with a spring in their step and a gold medal in their pocket after a huge day for the county.
After beating the 60×30 strongholds of Munster and Leinster with juvenile boys and girls teams, this was another momentous day for Tyrone juvenile handball.