Last Sunday was another famous day for Tyrone handball as the county registered All Ireland championship singles titles in two of the elite juvenile grades.
Loughmacrory handball club has witnessed a lot of history created over many decades and last Sunday was another of those landmark days in the club’s annals as representatives from many parts of Ireland converged on Tyrone for seven All-Ireland 60×30 juvenile championship finals.
Tyrone were involved in three of the elite finals in 2016 and it turned out to be a very historic occasion as the county claimed two premier singles titles and just missed out on one of the major doubles championships.
The host club was celebrating a truly famous double success at the end of a memorable programme of games after local brother and sister Antoin and Mairead Fox produced stunning performances to see off their opponents from Kerry and Kilkenny and write their names into the record books.
Antoin Fox’s top class display in the All-Ireland under-16 singles decider ensured he became the first player from his county to capture the biggest juvenile prize in 60×30 handball and he couldn’t have done it more impressively as the Munster champion struggled to cope with the Tyrone player’s range of skills.
His sister Mairead had earlier launched proceedings in what turned out to be the match of the day as she survived a huge challenge from Kilkenny’s Roisin O’Keefe to secure the sweetest triumph of her career so far to celebrate her 14th birthday in style.
She finally clinched the girls under-14 singles title with a nailbiting 15-12 tiebreaker victory in a gripping contest that was later described by GAA handball president Willie Roche as one of the best under-14 girls singles final ever seen in the ‘big alley’.
What made the result all the more special for the Tyrone star was that her win completed a magnificent clean sweep on the national stage in under-14 girls singles events, something that no player from Ulster has ever come close to accomplishing before.
Mairead produced arguably the most sensational handball of her entire season in the opening game on Sunday as she served up a stunning array of killshots and passing shots to record an emphatic 15-3 scoreline.
But the expected response from the Kilkenny player came in the second game as she raised her efforts and pushed Mairead into the back corners to eventually secure a 15-7 win and set up a tiebreaker.
The Leinster champion, a much more experienced 60×30 player than the Tyrone girl, appeared to have gained a lot of momentum entering the deciding game but the Loughmacrory player has shown her qualities all year at the highest level and was never going to allow this title to slip from her grasp without a huge push.
What followed was a sensational battle between two highly skilled and determined young players. When Roisin O’Keefe came from behind and went into a 7-6 lead she was starting to look the more likely winner, but that was when Mairead rose to the challenge and clenched her fist before hitting seven points in a row to leave herself on the verge of glory.
But back came the Kilkenny player with another outstanding comeback and after hitting five points in a row she was suddenly serving at 12-13 and looked set to level the match once again as the atmosphere intensified.
It was at this dramatic point that Mairead launched one final surge to seize the All Ireland title and she crucially stopped her opponent from equalising before going back in and delivering two of the best serves she has ever executed to wrap up an emotional win.
The second Tyrone challenge for All Ireland honours came in match four on the programme as Ciara Mullan and Elizabeth McGarvey faced the formidable challenge of Kildare’s Leah Doyle and Mollie Dagg in the All Ireland under-16 girls doubles final.
The two Kildare girls are top quality singles players on their day and together they are a very powerful combination.
The Tyrone pair knew they had a very tough task on their hands but they gave it everything they had and competed superbly for most of the match, with Elizabeth and Ciara both showing the quality they possess with delightful shots at various stages.
There were some outstanding rallies over the course of the match but ultimately it was the Leinster champions who shaded the exchanges and took the title in two straight games, 21-8, 21-10.
The third Tyrone challenge on the programme came in match six, the highest profile fixture of the day, as local star Antoin Fox faced Kerry hopeful Daire Keane, who had travelled up all the way from Ballymacelligott to stake his All Ireland claim.
The Munster champion had come through the more difficult side of the draw and in particular his wins over Tipperary’s Sean McAdam in the Munster final and Kilkenny’s Eoin Brennan in the All Ireland semi-final meant he was potentially a serious threat.
What transpired however was a dominant display from the Tyrone player who proceeded to produce 60×30 handball of the highest standard to completely overwhelm his opponent.
Antoin attacked straight from the start and quickly took a firm grip on the proceedings as he began to hit a brilliant deep overhand serve coming off the left sidewall and going across the backwall, which the Kerry player simply struggled to cope with. And when the serve was returned, Antoin was passing and killing with power and precision.
The Tyrone player cruised to a 21-6 victory in the opener and looked well on the way to making history, but there was a real danger that his opponent would mount a stronger challenge in the second game, having familiarised himself with the court.
But the anticipated revival wasn’t allowed to happen as Antoin never eased off for a moment and he was totally ready for anything that Daire Keane could throw at him. If anything, Antoin’s overhand serve became even better in the second game and was almost flawless, giving the Kerry lad little chance of turning things around.
In open play too, the Tyrone player was simply in a different class, which was reflected in the final scoreline of 21-6, 21-6, as he strode to victory in the style of a great champion.
Antoin’s victory completed a momentous and very proud day for his family, club and county, with so much history made in the process. It was certainly an occasion that will live long in the memory for Loughmacrory handball people.
The other finals staged in Loughmacrory on Sunday were won by Kilkenny, Galway, Cork and Tipperary, with Tyrone finishing in joint second on the overall juvenile roll of honour for the 60×30 championships. Thirteen counties in all competed in the finals at three venues, with Wexford topping the medals table with 4 titles. Kilkenny and Tyrone both captured two titles each with Cork, Galway, Kildare, Tipperary and Waterford all taking one title back to their respective counties.
GAA Handball 60×30 All Ireland Juvenile Finals Results
Friday 14th October 2016
At St. Macartan’s, Monaghan
BU14S Wexford (Josh Kavanagh) dft Monaghan (Eoghan McGinnity) 15-7, 15-11
Sunday 16th October 2016
At Loughmacrory, Tyrone
GU14S Tyrone (Mairead Fox) beat Kilkenny (Rosin O’Keeffe) 15-3, 7-15, 15-12
GU16S Galway (Niamh Heffernan) beat Kilkenny (Dearbhail O’Keeffe) 21-9, 21-6
GU14D Tipperary (Siobhán Prentice/Isabel Farnan) beat Kilkenny (Noelle Dowling/Kellyann Ryan) 11-15, 15-5, 15-7
BU14D Kilkenny (Padhraic Foley/Jack Doyle) beat Galway (Enda Collins/James Cummins) 15-3, 15-3
GU16D Kildare (Mollie Dagg/Leah Doyle) beat Tyrone (Ciara Mullan/Elizabeth McGarvey) 21-8, 21-10
BU16S Tyrone (Antoin Fox) beat Kerry (Daire Keane) 21-6, 21-6
BU16D Cork (Conor Walsh/Cian O’Driscoll) beat Galway (Paul Conneely/Fiachra Mulkerrins) 21-4, 21-2
At Kingscourt, Cavan
BU15D Wexford (Cian Kehoe/Josh McMahon) dft Cavan (Diego De Folco/Niall McMahon) 15-3, 15-4
GU15S Wexford (Cliodhna O’Connell) dft Mayo (Claire Reynolds) 15-5, 15-4
GU15D Wexford (Ciara Parnell/Leanne Boland) dft Mayo (Heather Burke/Cuileann Bourke) 15-11, 15-13
BU17S Waterford (Kavan O’Keeffe) dft Roscommon (Khalid Yakhyaev) 21-1, 21-0
BU17D Kilkenny (Aidan Barry/Cathal Barry) dft Roscommon (Fionn Cusack/Oisin Cusack) 21-8, 10-21, 11-2