Banbridge Academy heaved a collective sigh of relief after reaching their fourth Belfast Telegraph Ulster schoolgirls’ Senior Cup final in a row on Wednesday when they defeated Strathearn 1-0 to earn a date with Ballyclare High in the final at Lisnagarvey on March 6.
The 2017 winners started favourites but what a battle Strathearn put up after trailing to an early goal as they went on to dominate most of the exchanges and were unlucky not to have at least forced a penalty shootout.
Bidding to progress to the final for the first time since 1992, the Belfast school had two shots cleared off the line and a goal disallowed, winning the the penalty corner count 8-3.
However, their set-piece routine let them down as, all too often, they failed to get a shot on target, relying on intricate variations, rather than opting for a more direct approach which might have been more productive.
Nadia Benallal was the heroine of the hour, scoring the all-important early goal that eventually won the game although she also missed a penalty stroke shortly after the restart.
The Academy captain admitted that her team have much room for improvement before they tackle 2012 winners Ballyclare next month.
“We will need to be much better than that and it was a really messy performance all round from us but we we just delighted to be in the final once again,” said the Ireland Under 18 midfielder.
“We didn’t really care who we’d meet in the final and while it would have been nice to have had a change to avenge last year’s defeat by Rainey, we’ll look forward to the Ballyclare game.
“We don’t know too much about them and our paths haven’t crossed so far this season but we will do our homework on them as well as work hard ourselves between now and March 6
“Fortunately, we have plenty of time to work on what went wrong and there weren’t too many areas that we could say we were happy with, to be honest.
“But all credit to Strathearn, they made life really difficult for us and we had to dig really deep at times to keep them out but we defended well at times when we had to.
Academy coach Neil Madeley agreed with his captain’s assessment and felt that the big occasion perhaps got to his players.
“Cup semi-finals can be nervy affairs and so it proved and rather than steady ourselves with that early goal, it seemed to spur Strathearn on,” he said.
“They had us under a lot of pressure at times in the game and I thought Ellen Reid had a great game for us at the back, thankfully.”
After a cagey opening spell, Bann took the lead in the 12th minute when Benallal fired home a rebound from the right channel after Katie McDonald’s shot from the first penalty corner of the game had been blocked.
However, instead of settling any early nerves for their opponents, that setback seemed to be just the incentive Strathearn needed as they mounted a series of attacks.
Almost immediately, Jenny Wilson had a shot taken of the line by Holly Hannah and then the Strathearn striker had a set-piece effort saved by Rebecca Spence.
From another corner, Kate Wills’s deflected shot was stopped by a Bann defender close to the line and then came that disallowed goal.
Erin Stewart’s effort crashed off the post from yet another set-piece and Wills knocked in the rebound but the ‘goal’ was ruled out because the ball hadn’t gone outside the circle before the initial shot was taken.
Six minutes into the second half, Academy were awarded a penalty stroke after ‘feet’ on the line but Benallal’s strike went wide.
Strathearn continued to have the edge after that, winning three more corners but they were unable to find an equaliser.
“I was very proud of our performance, the girls played well and we were disappointed not to covert one of opportunities we had,” said Strathearn assistant coach Naomi Grundie.
“It was a closely contested game and we gave it all we had. Banbridge took their goal well and we wish them well in the final.”
Banbridge Academy: Rebecca Spence; Holly Hannah, Nadia Benallal (capt.), Caitlyn Lyness, Katie McDonald, Sophie Mount, Jodie Simmons, Hanna Buchanan, Gemma Hasson, Ellen Reid, Alex Gardiner; Subs: Zoe Hylands, Hannah Jordan, Sara Jayne Corry, Molly Mathers, Maisy Corry.
Strathearn: Emma Farrelly; Chloe Sweet (capt.), Jessica Anderson Bell, Maya Savage Newell, Katie Wills, Hannah McCann, Claire Whiteside, Harriet Platt, Erin Stewart, Jenny Wilson, Alex Fawcett; Subs: Grace Hutchinson, Francesca Park, Amelia Hopkins, Eve McKibbin, Anna Gillespie, Lauren Armstrong.
Umpires: Lyn Morrow, James Wray.