USA too strong but long-term Irish gains abound from Champs Challenge

Women’s Champions Challenge I final
Ireland 1 (E Smyth) USA 3 (P Selenski, C Nichols, K O’Donnell)

The Irish dream of a first Champions Challenge I title came unstuck at the hands of the USA in Glasgow, showing their precision and class to coolly come back from a controversial early deficit to win 3-1.

Michelle Harvey slips under pressure from Jill Witmer Pic: Rodrigo Jaramillo

Michelle Harvey slips under pressure from Jill Witmer Pic: Rodrigo Jaramillo

Nonetheless, this was a ground-breaking week for Darren Smith’s side, beating a top ten side (Korea) for the first time in many a year as well as dismissing two World Cup-bound sides from the competition, finishing second in a tournament they began as seventh seeds.

Even more important, the psychological knowledge for the players that top teams can be beaten in tight showdowns will be a huge boon, something assistant coach Graham Shaw alluded too in the aftermath of the final.

“To beat two teams going to a World Cup, especially in a World Cup year, that’s what you have to take out of it,” he told The Hook. “They are training at that elite level – beating Korea and South Africa under that pressure in this environment, in a World Cup year, we have to take massive positives from that.

“We’re obviously disappointment at the moment with the result – we went into the final to win it – but when we look back and reflect on the tournament, there will be so many positives. We can carry that forward into the next year and look forward to playing in the next world level competition.

“When the pressure hits us in a world competition, we know we can perform and know we can get a result. That’s the most important thing we carry forward.”

The one side that had Ireland’s number were the US who were a cut above every other side on display at Glasgow Green over the week and despite Emma Smyth’s contentious opening goal.

With the anthems being interrupted by a fire alarm, leading to bizarre scenes of players and fans milling about on the pitch while South African players piggy-backed across the pitch out of the shower rooms, the start was delayed by 20 minutes.

As such, the nature of the goal was suitably bizarre. A third minute corner allowed Ireland to dig out another one of their set of novelty corners, this time seeing the stopper castle scatter with Megan Frazer receiving the ball five metres outside the circle, allowing potential for a high hit at goal.

With the US defence not closing her down, she entered the circle but topped her shot head-height at Smyth who kept her eye on it and volleyed home. Part of the US defence cried danger while others assumed it would not stand and launched a counter-attack.

But umpire de la Fuente deemed no danger – on replays, no US defender appeared to take evasive action – and after plenty of confusion, drowned by the Fratellis celebration music, the goal stood.

If the US were feeling angry, they used it positively and set about squeezing the life out of the Irish defence, drawing a large number of loose passes and turnover ball.

Shirley McCay dives to nick the ball away from Kathleen Sharkey Pic: Rodrigo Jaramillo

Shirley McCay dives to nick the ball away from Kathleen Sharkey Pic: Rodrigo Jaramillo

The lead was wiped out in the 25th minute when Paige Selenski provided an exquisite overhead control from Melissa Gonzalez’s off-course reverse and the young striker finishing off with her second touch.

Caroline Nichols then repeated her penalty corner prowess from the group stages, sweeping hard enough down the right channel to make it 2-1 at the break, bouncing the ball between Emma Gray’s mits.

Katie O’Donnell put the game to bed 13 minutes into the second half when she snapped up a corner rebound. Ireland’s chance to fight back might have come when the US had a four-minute spell with nine players but they could not capitalise when Michelle Kasold and Kathleen Sharkey were on yellows but, from the corner they did draw, could not find another shooting opportunity.

Despite the loss, the silver medal and performances against Korea and South Africa will provide ample belief for this developing squad when the Olympic qualifying process begins early in 2015.

Head coach Darren Smith was suitably proud of his team’s efforts: “I am so very proud of the team for an outstanding week. The performance and result against both Korea and South Africa were sound and I also felt we played some good hockey in the pool stages.

“Today, USA had the edge on us and we just couldn’t apply enough pressure in their defensive end. USA are a good team and deserved champions. Now for a summer of hard work.”

Megan Frazer was subsequently named player of the tournament for an outstanding campaign at the base of the defence, powering forward from sweeper to join attacks and weighing in with some vicious corner hits – a leader from the front.

Given that she spent much of the season as centre-forward with Holcombe in England, top-scoring in her respective league, her positioning was inspired.

Emma Gray was named keeper of the tournament while the measure of defensive strength was such that Rhona Simpson named Shirley McCay, Frazer and Cliodhna Sargent in the team of the tournament midfielder Katie Mullan also included.

Ireland: E Gray, C Sargent, E Smyth, N Evans, S McCay, M Frazer, A O’Flynn, C Watkins, N Daly, K Mullan, A O’Flanagan
Subs: M Harvey, N Carroll, G Pinder, K Dillon, A Meeke, E Beatty, A McFerran

USA: J Kintzer, M Gonzalez, R Dawson, J Reinprecht, K Reinprecht, K O’Donnell, M Kasold, C Nichols, K Falgowski, K Sharkey, L Crandall
Subs: S Fee, K Kolojejchick, M Vittese, J Witmer, E Wold, P Selenski, C Nichols, A Widdall

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