THE Kilkenny first inline hockey team, the Kilkenny Bandits, entered the seventh annual Valley Vase tournament held in Newtownabbey just outside Belfast recently and they made off with the top prize.
It was the sixth time the local outfit had entered the competition. Last year they enjoyed their best result until then when they reached the quarter-finals. This time the Bandits had their sights set on gold.
The high-quality competition attracted 10 teams, five from the North and the balance from the Republic. There was no easing into the competition.
The Kilkenny side’s first game was against the current Irish League champions, Cork Revolution. It was a close, physical game, but the Bandits scored a 3-1 win.
In game two the Bandits faced off against the Northern Cyclones B, a local team who enjoyed great support. Kilkenny started well, scoring two goals during the opening minutes, to break the hearts of the opposition. The Bandits took full advantage and every player on the team got on the score sheet. The final result was 11-1.
After a short break, the Bandits faced Galway Bay Lightning. This was Galway’s first year in the competition. They had faced many of the Kilkenny players in last year’s National League, so they knew what to expect.
Players sin binned
The game was physical. Both sides had players sent to the sin bin early on. Kilkenny’s first score came on a power play from the team captain Stephen Barcoe. From there, additional scores from David Fitzpatrick, Cian O’Mahony and Gary Knox in the first half put Kilkenny on the road to victory.
The final score was an impressive 9-1 to the Cats, who were growing in confidence and power.
The final game of the first day proved to be the toughest. It was against the home team and the tournament hosts, the East Coast Blaze A. The visitors were slow out of the blocks and before they knew it they were two down, the first time they had been behind in the tournament.
The Cats toughed it out but a goal each from Stephen Barcoe, Brian Thirsk and Pat McDonough wasn’t enough to drag back the home team, who won 5-3.
With three wins recorded that day, Kilkenny shared top spot with Cork on the points table but they claimed poll position on goal difference. This meant the Bandits went straight into the semi-finals.
The Bandits faced the Northern Cyclones A in the semi-finals. The early pace of the game was fast as both teams charged forward looking for the opening goal.
Cian O’Mahony split the defence and ripped a slapshot from the wing directly into the top corner to open Kilkenny’s account. Shortly afterwards Stephen Barcoe sneaked the puck past the Cyclones goalie for a second goal.
The action in the second half was hard fought. The Cyclones threw caution to the wind, but the Bandits ’keeper, Oscar Ballister, refused to yield in the face of fierce assaults on his goal. Brian Thirsk scored a third goal for the Bandits near the end to wrap up a very good win.
The Cyclones didn’t give up, however, and they scored with a deflection in off a Kilkenny player. The final score was 3-1. The Kilkenny Bandits were into their first final in the tournament.
Having sized up the opposition in the other semi-final, the Bandits knew the decider would be tough. Both the Dublin Riot and Belfast Bruins were two highly skilled teams. Both had previously won the Valley Vase trophy.
The last shot of the semi-final earned the Bruins a breathtaking 3-2 win. It was a Belftast v Kilkenny final.
The panels lined up at the start of the game to observe a minute’s silence in remembrance of the victims of the 9-11 attacks in New York.
As the puck was dropped, the Bandits gained possession and passed it around to gain a feel of the opposition. The experienced opposition, an ex-ice hockey team, upped the pressure and chased possession deep in the Kilkenny defence. They scored an early goal.
The Bandits didn’t panic. They continued to fight with all their might, but they just couldn’t score. The Bruins counter attacked at every opportunity. The approach paid off. They scored again; 2-0 to Belfast.
The Kilkenny Bandits dug deeper. When Cian O’Mahony was held in front of the Belfast goal and Gary Knox was elbowed, two Bruin players were sin binned. With a two man advantage on court, Kilkenny roared forward.
The Cats passed the puck quickly and smartly. With seconds to go before the end of the half, Stephen Barcoe shot the puck over the blocker of the Bruins netminder. Half-time score: 2-1.
The second half was as fiercely fought as the first. It was end to end stuff. Both sides were physical. Both had players sin binned.
Slowed down game
Kilkenny slowed their game down, and began to take control. This approach paid off. Pat McDonough scored the equaliser with seven minutes remaining.
The fierce action continued from end to end. Kilkenny called a time-out with 22 seconds left on the clock and organised a power line out for the remainder of the game. This tactic worked. Brian Thirsk snapped a shot into the top corner. The game ended 3-2 to the Bandits.
After the long journey home, the team celebrated in Paris Texas, the team sponsors. The Valley Vase is on display in the High Street premises, and will soon be joined by the away strip, which will also funded by Paris Texas.
The Kilkenny Bandits train twice a week in Paulstown. The team is always looking for new players, both beginner and advanced. Everyone is welcome, either to watch or to find out more about the sport.