It was a winter of loss for Ballyhale Shamrocks and Oulart-the-Ballagh in 2011.
The Wexford men had to deal with the sight of another Leinster title in the rear-view mirror, while James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick and the local parish had to deal with a matter of much greater importance: life. Or the passing of it.
A single-car collision claimed the lives of two young hurlers — Sean Malone and Martin Duggan — a couple of days before Christmas and put sport into perspective.
“It’s been mentioned during the year,” said Fitzpatrick. “Sean Malone, he’d be my second cousin, and it’s affected everyone around the parish. I remember last Stephen’s Day… Christmas may as well not have come around, it was such a gloomy period around the place.
“There was no Christmas last year really and I suppose it’s almost been a year but yeah, it was mentioned during the year several times. For the county final, we all wrote the lads’ names on our hurls just as a kind of respect. But it was definitely a factor in driving us on.
“Sean’s mother Noreen is heavily involved in the club. She makes sandwiches and food for us all and goes to all the games. It was great for her as well, some consolation at the end of the year, you know.”
Ballyhale captain David Hoyne dedicated the county title win over Dicksboro to the youngsters in his acceptance speech but the team have a chance to further their tribute when they play Oulart in today’s re-fixed Leinster semi-final.
This game represents a rematch from the 2009 Leinster campaign when Oulart squandered a nine-point lead to lose in extra-time to Ballyhale.
“I’m sure Oulart-the-Ballagh are looking back to a few years ago and regretting it,” said Fitzpatrick.
The All-Ireland final replay pushed the club season back an extra three weeks into more wintry conditions, and the 2008 Liam MacCarthy-winning captain feels the drawn game should have gone to extra-time for the sake of the little guys.
As for a return to the inter-county set-up, Fitzpatrick is content with his lot after eight successful years. “For me, I spent the year  training well and performing like hell. It’s just when we’re told the team is picked on training and then you go out and you’re not picked even when you’re performing really well… nah, I’ve no regrets. I wasn’t going to spend another year on the bench when you’re overlooked, consistently overlooked.”
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