The brightest prospects within GAA Handball in Ireland will battle it out this weekend at the Irish Junior Nationals, in Kilkenny, with a hugely exciting Christmas expedition to Tucson, Arizona on offer for the victors in the six main grades. Winners in the 15, 17 and 19 and under age brackets, in both male and female, will secure their air tickets to travel to the USA this Christmas to represent Ireland in the latest bid for the highly coveted US Junior International titles on 27th December.
Irish players have constantly enjoyed grand success at this event for the past two decades and have dominated across the board in more recent times. Just twelve months ago, at the San Diego Tennis and Racquet Club, the Irish celebrated a clean sweep of the principal titles for the first time ever.
Tyrone’s Caolan Daly, Cork’s Killian Carroll and Monaghan’s Darren Doherty took the honours in the male grades while the ladies did a similar job on their American counterparts when Down’s Lorraine Havern, Cork’s Catriona Casey and Roscommon’s Lauren O’ Riordan were all triumphant.
That scenario is certainly on the cards again as a host of gifted juniors will be taking to the 40×20 courts in Kilkenny this weekend.
Galway’s Martin Mulkerrins is just one of an exceptional bunch of players expected to secure the 19 and under spot on the official Irish side but has stern opposition standing in his path to glory. Two such contenders include current US 17 and under winner and beaten finalist at the senior ranking golden Gloves event in Belfast a fortnight back Cork’s Killian Carroll, and 2011 All-Ireland minor hardball champion, Kildare’s Niall O’Connor.
Even so, the world 17 and under singles and doubles champion of 2009, Mulkerrins has prepared thoroughly and is ready for the challenge ahead. “The 60×30 season has just recently finished but I’ve been very fortunate with my preparations for the junior nationals as I have been able to get great games against top class players such as Diarmuid Nash (Clare), Darragh Daly (Tyrone), Stephen Cooney (Mayo) and Brian Carroll (Meath), which have brought my small alley game on immensely,” said Mulkerrins.
Mulkerrins who bagged the All-Ireland minor 40×20 crown in 2010, missed out in the Nationals due to injury twelve months back but that has fully recovered and he is relishing the task in hand this time around. “Luckily I am injury free this year and I’m delighted to be able to play in the juniors as last year I missed out on the competition due of tendonitis. I think it must be the toughest competition in our age bracket that there has been in a long time. The standard is very high and everyone will have to be on the top of their game even to get by the first round.”
“Personally, I am not looking any further than my first game. I’m playing Eoghan Hennessy (Coolnaleen) and we have always had very tough games and I’m sure this match will be no different. But of course going on recent form in the Golden Gloves and from this year in general, the main guys to watch out for will be Killian Carroll and Niall O’ Connor.”
The genial three times All-Ireland minor singles winner from the Moycullen club has without doubt all the tools and credentials to prevail this weekend in what promises to be a truly fascinating event.
Cork’s Catriona Casey has picked up every award possible in the junior category to date which includes a striking nine All-Ireland minor singles and doubles medals. She is on course to grab a hat trick of titles in Arizona, having safely tucked away the 15 and 17 and under US Junior crowns. The Mallow teenager has made quite an impression already in the senior ranks and is sure to get her hands on a senior title in the not too distant future.
Earlier this year, Casey took the Munster senior singles and doubles titles and would be regarded by many to be the best player in the world right now in the juniors. “I feel like I have prepared reasonably well for the nationals. Playing senior earlier in the year was a great experience and highlighted what I needed to work on. The 60×30 season is not long over, but I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing as it has maintained my fitness.”
Casey has had to juggle her training schedule with college duties since commencing her third level studies in Limerick recently but is nevertheless in buoyant mood ahead of this weekend’s mission. “I started college this year in Limerick and have found it a bit more difficult to train on a regular basis, but I understand that most of those in my age group are in the same boat and I am getting used to the situation now. Overall, I’m really looking forward to the weekend.”
She possesses all the attributes of a senior champion in waiting with an error free game plan matched with a composed approach but Casey remains wary of the opposition at the Kilkenny venue. “It will be tough to win the nationals this year despite the low entry in my age group. I have played Amy Corrigan (Ballaghaderreen) in many finals over the years and I will be taking nothing for granted. She is very strong physically. Aoife McCarthy (Meath) has also a lot of skill and no doubt both will be out to win in their final year at underage.”
An electrifying weekend of action is anticipated with a record breaking 352 youth players competing for the silverware at the Irish Junior 40×20 Nationals.