Saffron girls plan to toughen up for new run

THERE may be no camogie action on the horizon but that hasn’t stopped Antrim looking ahead to what might be.

Getting stronger is one of the targets that the Saffrons have set themselves this season, and they have taken advantage of the lockdown to attempt to achieve that goal.

Ballycastle player and Antrim forward Niamh Donnelly said: “After last year’s disappointment of losing the All-Ireland final we really felt that we were not strong enough. We are trying to build strength and prepare better.

“Down were so strong and physical last year. So we want to work on that.

“Before we even went out to play them we could see how big and strong they were. We are a small, fast team. We think if we can build our strength that will help us for the incoming year.”

The reason they want to emulate Down is simple, they want to go one step further.

“We want to push on and get back into an All-Ireland final. Getting to the final was nearly a bonus. But this year, because of last year, we have that want and motivation to get back into that position. Then, once you are there, it is up to you to see if you can go better.

“But for me I want to get back to that position. If there is an Ulster Championship we want to push for that as well.

“The All-Ireland final is the big one because we know that we can be there. And then if we get there we can push on, and it would be up to us on the day.”

One of the challenges of trying to achieve that goal of having greater strength is that the team are isolated and working on their own.

But the management have set up a situation where they can work on strength.

Elaine Dowds, one of the Antrim camogie management team, along with Paul McKillen and Jingo McKernan, hosts Zoom meetings so the panel can catch up and train together.

“It is hard doing it by yourself. Elaine has set us challenges to help keep us going. It’s good to see the girls and see that they are putting in the effort. We are doing our own training but we are doing it at the same time.

People are constantly talking on Zooms and WhatsApp, and putting in the work. They are letting everyone know the effort they are putting in.

“It is nice to go on those Zooms and see everyone there.”

They have work out and strength and conditioning programmes in place and that has helped the girls build themselves to be stronger for when the new seasons.

Being isolated can be a challenge for most people. Donnelly said that the players have benefitted from the Zoom calls.

“It is hard not being able to see the girls because we would usually see each other four or five times a week. We can see and hear each other during the week. It’s good that we have these form of communication that we can see each other.”

Antrim reaching the All-Ireland final last year was something of a surprise. Donnelly said that getting that far had not been on her radar. So when she achieved it, it was a surprise.

Yet she has had time to work out how it happened.

“I think it was because of the split season. There were girls coming on board last year who hadn’t before because they had other commitments, maybe dancing. There were girls with children who couldn’t commit their time between club and county.

“Having that split season meant that they could have the couple of county training seasons a week, and everyone was focused on that. I think that really helped us to gain three or four players.

“The split season allowed us to focus on one goal. You didn’t have club managers expecting you to be at training. You weren’t conflicted. We could give all the time to county.

“I think, whether it is a split season or not this year, everyone enjoyed it so much last year that they want to keep going and to push on.”

The management of Paul McKillen, Elaine Dowds and ‘Jingo’ McKernan were in their first season in charge last year and that seemed to help as well.

“The management were brilliant. I had Paul McKillen and Elaine Dowds when I was at school and they were amazing. We won an All-Ireland Junior title with them so I knew how good they were. Bringing ‘Jingo’ in was great as well. He was great, he made you feel so relaxed.

“They were a great mix of everything. All the experience they have together was great. They brought a lot. Having a management that pushed us really helped. And they never mentioned not getting to that All-Ireland final. That was the goal, and you knew they were pushing for it.

“It is brilliant that they are again this year. That brought those girls back.”

It is a young team – Antrim has had some strong minor teams in recent years and they are starting to feed into the squad. Donnelly said that in previous years they have struggled to get a strong squad out. But now the numbers have swelled, and the newer players have added a freshness.

“Having a panel of 25 is a dream. It is a boost to have those younger players coming up, and the players who couldn’t commit before. The craic is good and the mood is good, and it nearly makes it better because you know someone is always pushing for a place.”

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