** Words by John Flack
Ards picked up a sixth successive Irish Indoor title last month but the going is set to get tougher in Lithuania this weekend as they bid for survival in the second-tier of European competition.
The North Down side need a top-six finish out of the seven teams, competing in a round-robin format at the EuroHockey Indoor Club Trophy to keep themselves at the same level next year
Last year in Dundee, Ards performed superbly to retain their second-tier status in the face of opposition who play the six-a-side version of the sport for several months during the winter.
In contrast, Ards have had very little competitive action in the build-up and the Ulster and Irish championships were staged over just two days.
In addition, indoor hockey runs in parallel with the outdoor season in this part of the world, where some would claim the six-a-side version of the sport isn’t taken seriously enough.
Staying up will, therefore, be the priority for Caroline Adams’ team but they have left no stone unturned in the build-up.
“The teams from Lithuania and Ukraine have come down from the first division and we anticipate they will be tough opposition.” said the Ards captain.
“Our coach Gareth Grundie has been able to watch clips online from previous tournaments which will help inform his tactical decisions during this one.
“The French and English teams remain in the second division from last season although they are different sides from the ones we faced last year.
“Gareth has kept a keen eye on the English indoor league and we were all able to watch East Grinstead perform in the impressive arena of the ‘Super Sixes’ hosted in Wembley last year.
“The quality of the opposition allows us to keep improving and the playing experience we gain from the second division in Europe means a lot more to us than winning the third division as we’ve done in the past.
“Last year when we stayed up, it was incredibly tough but having done it before the girls and coaching staff are much more mentally prepared.
“We will use the games against the top opposition from Lithuania and Ukraine on day one to get up to speed for playing the other teams.
“Our target game will be the Swedish team, Partille, who were promoted from the third division last year.
“We have played them on two previous occasions in previous Europeans, once in Lisbon and once in Budapest.
“They beat us in Lisbon but we beat them in Budapest so we anticipate it will be a closely contested match on Sunday.”
Irish international striker and Ards leading scorer in Europe Chloe Brown will be a key player in Lithuania.
The 23-year old will be taking part in her fifth Euro campaign while, at the other end of the scale, schoolgirl, Alana Doyle, is one of three Ards players making their debut at this level.
Both are looking forward to what is certain to be a tough challenge as Ards attempt to stay in the second division with a hectic schedule involving six games in three days.
“Each year we have shown that we are getting better and competing with the bigger nations.” said Chloe.
“The second division is a big step from the third where we have had success before so each year we have to be better in order to stay in the second-tier.
“The teams we will be facing will have just finished their respective indoor leagues where they have gained competitive experience against other clubs over a period of time.
“The majority of the teams will have stopped outdoor hockey solely to focus on indoor and will be prepared technically and tactically for the tournament.”
Royal School Armagh head girl, Alana Doyle, therefore faces a tough baptism in her first European adventure but she is up for the challenge.
“I am really looking forward to the opportunity to play in the tournament but I’m aware that the indoor game is very strong in other European countries and I am relishing the chance to pit my skills against top-class players and teams.” said the 18-year-old.
“Obviously in countries with more severe winter weather the onus is on the indoor game during these months and their structures are geared towards a more prolonged indoor campaign.
“Therefore the first objective is to maintain Ards’ position in this division and, beyond that, I hope to play as well as I can, contribute to the team’s performance and add to my bank of hockey experience.”
Match schedule: Friday: Ards v Gintra (LTH) (10.20am Irish time); Ards v Sumchanka (UKR) (3.20pm); Saturday: Ards v East Grinstead (9.10am); Ards v Dundee Wanderers (3.10pm); Sunday: Ards v Lille (FRA) (7.10am); Ards v Partille (SWE) (10.40am).