Loreto returned to Dublin on Tuesday delighted with their bronze medal finish in the EuroHockey Club Champions Trophy in Leicester.
Going into the tournament ranked fourth, but without the services of four of regular first team players due to the Leaving Certificate exams and Nikki Keegan’s forthcoming wedding, their realistic target was to avoid relegation and their real ambition was to achieve their 4th place ranking. Achieving a bronze medal never felt so good.
Pitted in Pool A along with two Russian club sides and a Belarus team, all largely unknown opposition, Loreto came out of the blocks well in their first match on the Friday against Metrostroy.
The score could have been four all at half time but, instead, it was Loreto who lead 3-0 thanks to a combination of Loreto taking their chances in front of goal and their goalkeeper Louisa Healy making some brilliant saves at the other end.
Two goals came from Niamh Small and the third from Hannah Matthews from a well-worked penalty corner routine. In the second half, Metrostroy upped their tempo and fully pressed Loreto, pulling back two goals, the second one with 12 minutes to go.
This led to a nervy final spell for Loreto but, with veteran Caitriona O’Kelly in inspired form throughout, Loreto held out for a terrific, well-earned victory.
In match two on Saturday, Loreto faced an easier challenge against the Belarus team Victorya Smolevichi. Although technically and tactically weaker, the Belarus team provided stout resistance until the deadlock was broken by a trademark penalty corner direct strike from Sarah Clarke just before half time.
Tensions eased in the second half and further goals from Matthews and Rachel Keegan secured the win. Matthews’ goal was from a penalty stroke, put away with aplomb following excellent approach work by Hayley Mulcahy who drew the foul from the Belarus goalkeeper.
Also impressive in attack were Niamh Small and the younger brigade of Ciara Vincent, Sarah O’Loughlin and Carly Baker.
The final pool game on Sunday was a semi-final in effect with both Loreto and the crack Russian team, Izmaylovo, playing each other having both won their first two matches and with the winner guaranteed a place in Monday’s final.
Loreto played probably their best hockey of the weekend in the first 20 minutes of this match, putting it up to the Russians with the greater percentage of territory and possession.
However, they fell behind to a goal from a penalty corner which took a cruel deflection on route.
A second goal five minutes later was a blow, coming from a turnover in midfield. Renowned as a classic counter-attacking side, Izmaylovo stole the ball and played a series of scintillating passes, finishing with a player rolling the ball into the goal from close range, despite the best efforts of Zoe Ennis and Louisa Healy.
Loreto regrouped at half time and, playing in sweltering heat for the third day in a row, coach Trevor Dagg used their full bench to impressive effect. Young replacement goalkeeper Ruth Murphy showed in the second half why she is ready to take over the mantle from Louisa Healy, while the midfield engine of Ali Meeke, Ais Campion and O’Kelly were well supported by Cathy McKean, Roisin Ryan and Aine McCrann.
The team effort was rewarded with a cracking penalty corner goal from Clarke, possibly putting a dent in the backboard. Izmaylovo were too experienced to allow Loreto any more joy and wound down the clock with power and precision. A final score of 2-1 put Loreto into the third/fourth crossover match next day.
Prior to the final match between Russian side Izmaylovo and Leicester – which the hosts Leicester won 2-1 to secure first place – Loreto dug deep into their reserves of energy to produce one more big effort for a medal.
This time it was Spanish outfit Complutense they faced, a young side who had lost narrowly to the eventual winners Leicester (2-1) in their pool game and who were going to be hard to beat.
An inspired performance by goalkeeper of the tournament, Louisa Healy, somehow kept Loreto in the match, her heroics drawing gushing praise from the online match commentators.
Loreto fell behind in the third quarter, despite brave defending by Sinead McGirr and it was McGirr herself who contributed to Loreto’s equalizer in the last ten minutes when she swept a pass from a penalty corner switch into the path of Mulcahy who smashed the ball into the goal. With no further scores, the match went into a dramatic shoot-out.
Loreto won it 3-2 thanks to the class of Healy who saved from three of the Spanish attempts, while Ciara Vincent and Hayley Mulcahy showed how you eliminate a goalkeeper, keep your nerve and slot home the ball.
It was fitting that the winning shoot-out goal which secured the bronze medal was scored by the captain Matthews who played brilliantly throughout the tournament.
Having lost two major finals in recent years to shoot-outs, success this time round brought scenes of great celebration from players and supporters alike.
** Report from Sally Ann Fanagan