It’s a rare and magical experience, to stand shoulder to shoulder with your team-mates, and to sing the National Anthem before an All Ireland Final. It is in that very moment, as the hairs tingle the back of your neck, that you really appreciate the value of sport, of friendship, of preparation and of pride. And as you holler out those final words ‘seo dhíbh canaigh Amhrán na bhFiann’, the magnitude of your achievement comes sharply into focus.
The morning began in UL with a group game against Fossa NS, Killarney on Court 2 at the scheduled time of exactly 10:54am – everything about the day was planned to the exact minute by Volleyball Ireland and we applaud them for their efforts. Fossa, home to the talented Kerry footballer David Clifford, began brightly and soared into a 6-2 lead. Maintaining your serve is key to winning these games and a tremendous volley from Patricia Dyl Phillips won back serve for the Pres. Three perfect serves from both Nicole Egan and Gemma Jordan provided a platform for Presentation Panthers to take an 8-6 lead, a lead they would hold for the remainder of the match. Winning the first game on a scoreline of 31-19 boosted the girl’s confidence greatly heading into round 2.
The Heath, Portlaoise, provided the opposition in the second group game. Pauline Kwapinske landed her first three serves in this game to open up an early advantage. Lily Purcell, playing with an injured wrist, was pivotal in this game. Her digs and chasing of the ball ensured an easy 42-10 win and perhaps this game hinted that something special may be on the cards.
The final group game quickly brought the team back down to earth, and the dreams of cruising into an Ireland Final were suddenly splashed with a shower of reality as St. Ita’s Falcons, Loughrea powered to a comfortable 30-12 victory over the girls in wine. In truth, the loss demonstrated how the skills of volleyball can be honed and finessed to a standard we had not seen in this competition before.
Two wins and that one defeat resulted in a Quarter Final place against another Kerry team – Spa NS, Tralee. In hindsight, one could argue that this was the girl’s best team performance of the day. Nicole Egan was superb throughout, landing all her 9 serves and finding the energy to dig and volley when all seemed lost. With the teams level on five occasions, it was clear that concentration and determination were going to be key to being ahead when the final whistle would blow after 10 gruelling minutes. At 20-20, the Panthers won back serve as a stray Kerry serve drifted outside the court. Lily, Gemma and Anna all held their nerve to land their remaining serves and win the final 8 points of the game to claim a spot in the All Ireland Semi Final!
This time it was St. Ita’s Hawks, Loughrea that provided the opposition – St. Ita’s Falcons had also made it through to the other semi final to play St. Joseph’s Templemore. With butterflies churning in the tummies, the girls took to the court in a bid to make it through to the final. This time it was the turn of Anna Crawford to lead the team with some incredible touches and accurate serves. A blistering start saw Presentation Panthers go 10-1 up and a sense of anticipation could be felt by all. Cheered on by the members of Presentation Pythons,- the girls traded score after score with the Galway team right up until the final whistle sounded. It ended 28-18 and suddenly the realisation of an All Ireland Final beckoned!
That traditional cheer erupted as the last note of Amhrán na bhFiann was sung and Nicole, Anna, Gemma, Pauline, Lily and Patricia took their paces on Court 3 at 13:43pm – everything still exact, everything still possible and everything still to play for. Again it was the blue and gold jerseys of St. Ita’s that stood on the far side of the net. The Falcons had beaten Templemore and were back to face us yet again.
In a rip roaring contest, the teams shared scores as the race to 25 began. Errors were aplenty from both sides as tired bodies and nervous energy collided. The girls from Templemore joined our supporters to cheer on the Panthers in what can only be described as a touch of class. With the game tied at 16-16, it was anybody’s title to win and Ms. Ryan and Mr. Healy struggled to be heard over the deafening noise that filled the UL Sports Arena. Unfortunately, it was St. Ita’s who would find the crucial scores and deservedly claimed the title, 25-19. So close!
The day ended with a medal presentation and, although disappointed to have fallen at the final hurdle, there was a palpable sense of pride and achievement as the girls collected their All Ireland Runners Up medal. Volleyball is a wonderful game that has provided our two teams with experiences that will long live in the memory. After all, it’s not every day you stand smiling, shoulder to shoulder, with your friends to sing the National Anthem before playing in an All Ireland Final and collection a national medal!