Standing on the precipice of a potential treble, UCD coach Miles Warren says the amazing thing about his student side is that “we never set any long term goals” for his side.
They scooped the Irish Senior Cup before producing a stunning comeback against Hermes-Monkstown on the final day of the EY Hockey League season to land that title, too, Lena Tice scoring a pair of corners in the closing quarter to nick it.
When Warren took the reigns at Belfield two seasons ago, he was tasked with forming a new look side as the regular turnover in players hit hard. This season, preseason was curtailed as 10 of his panel were involved in the Under-21 interpros.
With the quality of player coming in, they quickly gelled and went unbeaten throughout the league and Warren says it owes a lot to the way his panel have coped with the fierce competition for selection each week.
“The atmosphere in the group is something else, from Marty [Burke] our manager, Mick [McKinnon], Dave Fitzgerald, myself as coaches and all 20 plus players that have represented us this year, we all get on very well.
“The players challenge each other all the time in training, there is competition for places and as much as we challenge the players to improve, they challenge us as coaches to do more for them too. It's an extremely tough hard working environment but there is a smile on everyone's face while doing it.”
He has 18 players fit and available for him. Sorcha Clarke has her cast off after a broken thumb sustained in the first five minutes of the Senior Cup final, an injury she battled through to make the pass for the winning goal.
Anna Richardson is back after three months out with a knee injury but Emma Mathews ruptured her Achilles in the week after the cup final. Sally Campbell is also out due to a broken ankle.
Those issues have stretched the squad but Warren does say that the strength in depth has been key to reaching this stage,
“The players that were in the club have all stepped up and improved massively. Fourteen of the 18 for this weekend were in the club last year but some were playing for the seconds and others might have only played small squad roles in the first team. We did get some great additions though and they fitted in very comfortably.
“Our only stated goal this term was to improve our performances against the teams we felt would be competing for the top four. Those matches were our downfall the year before.
“The other unique thing about the group is that they are only focused on the next match, it's a cliched thing to say, but its the first team in all my years that actually do it. It's one step at a time, all the time.”
They play a Loreto side who caused them plenty of issues this term. They drew 2-2 in game one while a late Orla Patton goal saw UCD win at Beaufort in the return leg, suggesting there is very little between the teams.
Coach Paul Fitzpatrick has a full deck to work with. Lizzie Colvin is back in training having been out for a month with a wrist injury – it could prove her last weekend for the club as she moves north for work. Sarah Evans is also back after a knee problem.
Fitzpatrick says there is “real belief in this team” that if they stick “to our plans, hopefully we will get a positive outcome.
“The previous two games were very tight and I think both teams have grown in strength since then. It should be a fast open game with both teams wanting to play hockey.
“There will be key battles especially in midfield. Corners will be key for both sides and, as always, in these once off games somebody will do something to change the game.”
Indeed, the battle between the combative Colvin and Gillian Pinder will be a critical situation as will the tight defensive work of Hannah Matthews against Deirdre Duke.
In the second semi-final at 12.30pm, Hermes-Monkstown are smarting from that recent final day loss to UCD as they face up to a date with Cork Harlequins.
Anna O’Flanagan is the Dubliners only doubt but she has come to the end of three weeks set for recovery from the concussion she sustained in the league tie against UCD.
Coach Rudi Wortmann says she has been “monitored very closely and is in a study-group of elite sports athletes who are monitored and helped by professionals” to give the best possible assessment of whether she can return to play.
Hermes-Monkstown have added Gavin Groves as an assistant for the coming weeks and he will travel with the side to the Europeans in June with Gareth Watkins unavailable for that trip.
Looking at Quins, the two clubs have played two close scorelines this term, the first a 3-2 result which required a last minute Nikki Evans goal to decide. The other was more clear-cut despite the 4-3 end result.
“Our first match versus Quins could have gone both ways alright. But the last match wasn't as close as people say. Quins were missing three important players and two of them will be playing this weekend. We were 4-1 up at seven minutes to go and they scored their last goal at the hooter but we were definitely the better team there.
“We need to focus on US and not on them or any other factors. Quins are fast up front and we need to contain those players in order to snuff out their strength.”
Quins are bidding for a first appearance in an Irish Hockey League final having reached the semi-finals in 2009 and 2010 in the previous format before the season-long system. Karen Bateman, Rachael Kohler and the flying Yvonne O’Byrne remain from that vintage but Cliodhna Sargent will not be involved this time out.
On Sunday morning, Belfast Harlequins play Lurgan in the battle for the last remaining place in next season’s EY Hockey League.
Lurgan return to Grange Road having finished last weekend unbeaten in second place in the round-robin. They travel, though, without three key personnel – coach Robbie McMinn, captain Charlene Hull and Sarah McClure.
"It would have been a tough enough task even without the two girls but now it's going to be even more so," said McMinn to the Belfast Telegraph.
"We were also short a couple of players at the weekend which didn't help but at least we'll have Emily McStea back from her birthday celebrations, although Amy Edwards is likely to be absent as she's got glandular fever.
"As far as my own position is concerned, I'm committed to an Ulster Under-17 trip as I'm the head coach but we'll bring someone in on a short-term basis to help out with Lurgan on Sunday."
Hull and McClure are both on the latter’s hen weekend. Quins will be without Ruth Millar (work) but their co-captain Claire Weir says it is a similar position to one her side found themselves in last year against UCC and they also had to cope with absent players this term.
"Claire Kilpatrick and I missed the Hermes match through injury, and the team pulled off a draw having lost 10-1 to them earlier, so anything can happen," she said. "The girls are focused and know what we need to do."
Women’s fixtures (all at Grange Road)
EYHL Champions Trophy
Semi-finals (Saturday): UCD v Loreto, 10.30am; Hermes-Monkstown v Cork Harlequins, 12.30pm
Final (Sunday): 2.30pm
EYHL promotion/relegation playoff (Sunday): Belfast Harlequins v Lurgan, 12pm, back pitch