Loreto seeking Leinster crown
A perfect season to date has brought Loreto Wexford into the Lidl Leinster Post Primary Schools Senior 'A' ladies' football final, and they have no intention of stopping there, despite the daunting prospect of facing Scoil Chríost Rí in the decider.
Ordinarily, the Portlaoise school would be heavy favourites heading into Monday's final in the Eire Óg grounds in Carlow (2 p.m.). They are, after all, the reigning Under-14, Junior and Senior Leinster champions.
They also boast players with huge quality, the likes of Erone Fitzpatrick and Emma Lawlor, two girls who have already gelled seamlessly into the Laois Senior county set-up. They are, clearly, the standard-bearers for schools football in Leinster.
It's six years since Loreto tasted success at this level but they have been on an impressive run. Under the guidance of joint-managers Paudge Brennan and David Crowdle, they have taken big strides since winning the Leinster Junior 'B' title two years ago.
Probably equal to a €100 million signing in the Premier League, Sarah Harding-Kenny's move over from the Presentation to Loreto this year has been a huge boost too. Her goal in their first round-robin game, against final opponents Portlaoise, helped the Wexford school open their campaign with a 1-9 to 0-8 win in October.
Coláiste Iosagáin were dismantled with a strong second-half display next time out, which sent Loreto into the last four as group winners. In horrid conditions, against Loreto (Navan), they played with the wind in the opening half but couldn't put their opponents to bed.
They defended superbly as a team once again and restricted the Meath school to a handful of chances. Becky Hamilton didn't start the first game against Portlaoise but she claimed the hat-trick in this contest that put the game away in the second-half.
Rachel Bennett, like Harding-Kenny a county team regular, was on form, slotting eight points while Ciara Banville and Julia Dempsey notched a goal each as Loreto eventually sprinted clear to win by 5-13 to 0-8.
At both ends of the field the Wexford girls have been dynamic this season. The attack has been more and more prolific as the campaign has moved on while the defence, with 0-21 conceded in three games, is as miserly as they come.
Joint-boss Brennan sees the sum of the parts the major strength of the side, rather than any particular section of the team. 'We are kind of beyond the stage where one player is the stand-out in the team and does everything,' he said.
'Defensively, the six backs really do work as a unit. There's not one person we are relying on to do all the last-ditch clearances. Also, we haven't started the same 15 for any of our three matches.
'For the girls that have come in, Becky Hamilton for example, I think she has gotten five goals in the last two matches. Michelle Carty, only on our Under-16 panel, we have brought her on in every match and she's scored a goal or a point.
'We have a lot in reserve. Against Iosagáin we were only two or three up at half-time, we ended up winning by 13 or 14. Navan we were only four or five up and ended up winning by double digits so it really is everyone.'
Getting to play Portlaoise in the opener and being able to get the win was big for his side, as Brennan explained: 'None of them had experience of beating Portlaoise before, I suppose the big thing is we are going into this final, as opposed to any other final, with that fear factor gone. The girls know they are capable of beating them now.'
Loreto, who play Presentation Kilkenny in the camogie semi-final in early January, go into the game with most of their squad to choose from. Long-term injury victim, Emily Coakley, is back in training and may also play some part.
Loreto squad: Sally Walker, Clodagh Jackman, Sadbh McCarthy, Annie O'Gorman, Megan Carty, Sarah Harding-Kenny, Aisling Halligan, Emma Cousins, Lettie Whelan, Emma Codd, Rachel Bennett, Julia Dempsey, Niamh Dunne, Becky Hamilton, Ciara Banville, Caitlin Carroll, Anna Hennessy, Eva Crean, Maura Molloy, Niamh O'Connor, Ashlin Gouldson, Michelle Carty, Liadh Dwyer, Mollie Bates, Ann Marie Bennett, Emily Coakley.