St. Mary's, Magherafelt showing they can hurl too
By John Harrington
St. Mary’s Magherafelt have established themselves as one of the big powers of post-primary schools football in Ulster in recent years, winning MacRory Cups in 2017 and 2022.
Clearly they’re a multi-talented bunch though, because on Saturday they’ll contest the Masita GAA Post Primary Senior ‘C’ Hurling Final against Mitchelstown CBS.
That’s quite an achievement when you consider some of their players don’t play any club hurling at all, only for the school.
“Yeah, lot of boys come from clubs that don't have hurling at all, including our vice-captain Niall O’Donnell who is from the Ballinderry club,” says team manager Niall Burke.
“Conchuir Johnston who plays centre-forward, both he and Ben McLarnon come from Cargin in Antrim who, again, are a football only club.
“They may have played some when they were younger at different clubs, but we're dealing with a lot of lads who only hurl for the school.”
The stock of hurling in the school has risen steadily in recent years thanks in no small part to the hard work of St Gall’s club-man, Burke.
“I joined the school five years ago and Derry had basically supplied coaches to the school to take the teams, there was no real hurling coaching going on in the school,” he says.
“So myself and Proinnsias Brolly, a brother of Joe Brolly, started taking the hurling teams throughout the school.
“We don't have it at every year, we usually just have teams at third year, fifth year, and seventh year. So three stages throughout the school. We'd love to have it at every year but we just don't have the time and resources to do that.
“As we are mainly a football school we don't really need to work too much on the fitness because they get that with the football, so we focus on stick-work.
“We’d also have around 12 players on our panel from Lavey who won the Derry minor Championship last year. Collie McGurk, who passed away last year, did great work with them in Lavey with some other coaches and we’ve felt the benefit of that.
Half of the school’s hurling team were also members of the MacRory Cup football panel, including Derry senior footballer, Niall O’Donnell.
He missed the All-Ireland semi-final victory over Terenure because it clashed with Derry’s Allianz Football League match against Dublin, but is free to play in Saturday’s Final.
“That’s a big boost for us,” says Burke. “Niall doesn’t play any club hurling but he’s a very good hurler.
“His stick-work might look a bit awkward, but his fitness is excellent, his tackling is amazing, and he does have a good strike on him as well. He's just one of those very talented people and we're lucky to have him and it's brilliant to have him back.”
St. Mary’s mightn’t have much of a hurling tradition, but because they a track-record of success in football their players have an ingrained winning mentality which Burke believes has stood to them on the way to Saturday’s Final.
“It definitely has,” he says. “I literally said in the changing rooms before the All-Ireland semi-final against Terenure, if any of you can walk or sprint to the door after this match you haven't played.
“And in fairness to the boys, they put absolutely everything they had into it and that comes from the mentality of winning they have from the football and being able to empty the tank effectively.
“A lot of them have Ulster medals in football and have played to the highest level. And then you combine that with the guys from Lavey who have won Derry championships in hurling and you really have a group who know how to win and dig deep.”
They’ll be underdogs on Saturday against a Mitchelstown team made up of players from Cork, Tipperary, and Limerick, but Burke is confident his players are ready to give a really good account of themselves and hopefully upset the odds.
“100 per cent. I think we're going into like we went into the semi-final. Terenure were a more skilful team than us, their striking was cleaner, but we were just more dogged. I think it's going to be the same in the Final.
“They're going to be a lot more skilful and have better strikers, so we just need to get on top of them and play like we did in the semi-final and I fully believe that we can.”