If the second phase of the women’s EY Hockey League season matches the pre-Christmas encounters, it promises to be an epic run from now until May.
Just one game had more than two goals in the difference of the 34 played to date; lots of late goals have seen points swing from side to side. There also remains something of an unknown with the potential swings of international selection perhaps having an impact at different stages.
As such, while Pegasus and Loreto have etched out strong positions, there is no time to rest on laurels with 11 rounds of matches to play.
Pegasus, leaders on 18 points, face a tricky away date at Muckross on Saturday, travelling south with Michelle Harvey out of action following surgery on her ankle. The hope is she can return before the end of the season.
In her absence, Kerri McDonald in defence and Ruth Maguire in midfield have been leading lights in the wake of injury and retirement. Pamela Glass – despite announcing her retirement after last season’s Champions Trophy – has been excellent in providing experience to a very young side.
Irish Under-18 duo Niamh McIvor and Charlotte Beggs have taken to the league like a duck to water and coach Greg Thompson is delighted with how their campaign has panned out to date and the challenge is now to maintain those standards.
Muckross are enjoying a productive season so far with nine points and a sixth position under new coach Simon Thornton.
Youngsters Ellie McLoughlin, Sarah MacAuley and Caroline Mathews have stepped up and Pearson says of their lot: “I think we are in a really good place right now but there is still a lot of hockey to be played, so for Muckross it all about taking one game at a time and not to look ahead and hopefully finishing in a very positive position”.
UCD are waiting in the wings to a certain extent in fifth place but look like they have plenty going for them in pursuit of a playoff place. Edel Nyland has joined the club after spells in the US and, last season, with Munich SC in the German Bundesliga.
Her aggression in the circle and extra experience is a big boon as is Nina Heisterkamp following a wrist injury which had ruled her out since October. Abbie Russell got in a couple of games at the back end of last year after six months out and she is regaining her sharpness.
Coach Miles Warren is hoping for a more clinical edge in the attacking circle, seeing his defence as being largely solid thud far, and if they can marry the two, they can rise the ranks.
Their first tie of 2020 is against Catholic Institute against whom they played a thrilling 7-4 battle in the Irish Senior Cup, coming back in the final quarter to win the day.
For Insta, they are hoping they can see Roisin Upton in action for the club for the first time after her wrist injury sustained during the Olympic qualifiers. Sarah Fitzgerald has been added to their panel while Bella Murphy moved back from Dublin to Limerick to expand their panel.
Jane Kirby, however, has a college placement in Luxembourg and will miss most weeks. A very young side, they have 10 schoolgirls in the squad with Roisin Begley and Anna Horan coming through with Christine O’Shea guiding things.
For coach Dave Passmore, he says: “We have played some good hockey in attack but the first half of the season was a steep learning curve which we hoped will benefit us in the second half, especially with the addition of Roisin Upton coming back but we need to get better at managing games as we lost several games from winning positions early on.”
He has been frustrated at a lack of cup matches for Munster clubs in January, something Leinster sides have availed of, following the province’s decision at an AGM a couple of years ago to not include EYHL sides in provincial cups.
The same is true for Cork Harlequins but they do have a large number of active members of the Mount Mercy school team who are through to Munster schools final where they will play Crescent.
Quins meet Railway Union in their first game of 2020 – eighth against seventh currently. The Sandymount side will be without Niamh Sweeney who has been called into the Dublin ladies football panel and made her debut last Sunday against Tipperary.
Lucy Crowe and Martha McCready both made their first team debuts recently and could be in a position to step up. Railway’s midfield mix of experience and youth pairs Emma Smyth and Sophia Cole in a key hub for the side with Orla Fox at the back and Sarah Hawkshaw up front.
Coach Dave McGivern says their rising stars will be key in the evolution of the team: “With the younger players in the squad taking on increasing levels of responsibility, we are at an exciting part of our development as a squad.
“Looking to push on towards a top four spot in the second half of the season but, crucially, to keep exposing the younger members to EY hockey to aid their longer term development.”
Old Alex had an excellent first phase of the season and they have added some international experience to their deck for phase two. Audrey O’Flynn is back after a spell playing rugby sevens for Ireland and Pamela Smithwick is back training after the birth of her daughter.
Aine Connery, though, is on the long-term injury list after an ACL operation at the back end of November.
Sarah Robinson, Emma Russell, Rebecca Evans and Hannah McDermott have been key drivers while Orna Bools and Bella Dunlop are making their mark alongside Nikki Evans and Deirdre Duke.
They do have big games against both Pembroke (on Saturday) and Pegasus to give a clear idea of where they lie in the playoff shake-up.
Loreto, meanwhile, will be favourites for all the points against bottom side Belfast Harlequins for whom Bethany Barr is an injury concern having missed the Irish international trip to South Africa.
EYHL2 also returns for the second half of the season. In Pool A, Corinthian travel south to Cork C of I knowing a win would virtually assure them of a place in the promotion playoffs.
They have a perfect record in both their league competitions and are bolstered by Amber Kinlan’s return from a fractured elbow on the first day of the season. Emily McKay and Sarah Coleman both have broken fingers which will keep them out for four to eight weeks.
The scoring has been shared out evenly, giving them multiple points of attack with Jessica McGrane scoring 10 and recording 10 assists. Lauren McGrane as 11 goals and Lynne Pomeroy with nine assists while goalkeeper Holly MIcklem had nine clean sheets.
They also have found a gem in Cilia Holdermann, a 15-year-old TY student in St Columba’s who is over from Germany and has been excellent. Irish Under-16 captain of last year, Milly Lynch, is also about continuing her development.
“Couldn’t have gone much better to be honest,” is Ralph Billings assessment. “The test now is to sustain it, we’re in a good place but we also know only half the job is done. There are no prizes for winning matches from September to December!”
C of I need a win to have any chance of breaching the top two in the group. They feature former Red Hannah Honner. Third place Lurgan go to NUIG with both sides also needing a result.
Trinity are interested observers on their bye weekend. Sophie Roopnarinesingh joins up after a half-year studying in Japan but Sally Campbell is on placement in Hawaii.
Coach Brian Scully puts a lot of store in his defence of Kate Orr, Leah Paul, Rachel Burns, Amy Buttimer and goalkeeper Iseult Cambay. And he is confident Trinity will be in the shake-up in a few months time.
“We are in a good position in our group, but it is only the halfway stage. It is all about making the semi-finals and then performing well that weekend; which we did not do last season. I see no clear advantage in finishing top or second – both of the teams who emerge from the other pool will be very strong.”
Their brief this weekend is a game with Naas in Leinster Division One.
In Pool B, UCC will look to jump back over Monkstown – who are on a bye weekend – into second place. They play winless Greenfields with most of the panel of 2019 bar Lorna McCutcheon who has moved to Canada as part of her course.
Jenny Clein has been in superb form and Caoimhe Perdue has begun to settle in well and is starting to reach her full potential as are the likes of Saoirse Griffin, Rebecca Kingston and Elva Kerr.
Ards have been the pace-setters in the group but face a big derby against Queen’s at Malone which will have a big bearing on the group.
In Leinster, Clontarf host Glenanne, Genesis meet Monkstown and North Kildare face Rathgar.
Women’s weekend fixtures
EYHL Division 1: Cork Harlequins v Railway Union, Farmers’ Cross, 1.05pm; Loreto v Belfast Harlequins, Beaufort, 2.45pm; Muckross v Pegasus, Muckross Park, 3.15pm; Old Alexandra v Pembroke Wanderers, Alexandra College, 1.30pm; UCD v Catholic Institute, Belfield, 2.50pm
EYHL Division 2
Pool A: Cork C of I v Corinthian, Garryduff, 2.30pm; NUIG v Lurgan, Dangan, 1.45pm
Pool B: Queens University v Ards, Malone, 1pm; UCC v Greenfields, Mardyke, 12pm
Leinster Division 1: Clontarf v Glenanne, Mount Temple, 2.30pm; Genesis v Monkstown, St Raphaela’s, 12pm; North Kildare v Rathgar, The Maws, 1pm; Trinity v Naas, Santry Avenue, 3.15pm
Munster Examiner Cup – Round 4: Belvedere v Ashton, Ballincollig CS, 1pm