Times weren’t always this good for the hurlers of Mary I.

Backboned by such household names as Declan Hannon, Cian Lynch, Niall O’Meara, and Colm Galvin, Limerick’s teacher-training college is making its second appearance at the Fitzgibbon Cup finals weekend just four years after joining the top table.

Manager Eamonn Cregan has overseen the college’s hurling team for the past 23 years and remembers afternoons where they simply could not buy a result against the likes of Athlone RTC, IT Sligo, RTC Tralee, and Cork Colleges of Further Education.

Stuck below in the Ryan Cup for the first 19 years of his tenure, the former Limerick boss admits that for a many a campaign the primary goal was getting 15 players on the field, and by whatever means necessary.

With Mary I’s student population, according to Cregan, showing a ratio of one male to every 10 females during the 90s and early noughties, finding 15 hurlers not on placement when the third-level competitions kicked in was an arduous task.

“I remember one Ryan Cup game back in the mid-90s and we had only 13 lads going to a match,” says Cregan.

“Noreen Lynch, a lecturer up there at the time, and I were looking after the team. Neither of us wanted to concede, but we weren’t sure how we were going to prop up the team. We had to play two females to avoid conceding. That is how tough it was.

Eamonn Cregan
Eamonn Cregan

“The problem always was that you had very few males at the college, and even fewer played hurling. You would have had a lot playing football, but very little were hurlers. Noreen Lynch kept it going through the good days and bad.

“Seven or eight years ago the widely held view was not enough males were going into teaching. More of an emphasis was put on encouraging secondary school male students to follow this path.”

Around this time, Mary I widened the net in opening its doors to post-graduate students, an emphasis also put on attracting more mature students to their lecture halls.

The net result was Mary I’s male population increased. No longer would Eamonn Cregan and Noreen Lynch have to go looking for two willing females to ensure 15 names were on the sheet handed over to the referee at half-time.

The breakthrough arrived on the first Saturday in March back in 2006, Maynooth overcome at the Mardyke 1-15 to 1-7 to deliver Mary I a first Ryan Cup crown. Brendan Maher led them to a second title in 2009 and Mary I were promoted to the top tier off the back of their 2-21 to 0-10 hammering of IT Tralee in the 2012 final.

“That was our third win and we had won all our games that year easily. We were that little bit better than everyone else in the grade. We had to progress upwards at some point.”

A factor too in their rising graph was the decision taken in 2012 to extend the Bachelor of Education at Mary I from a three to four-year course. The college’s freshers reached the All-Ireland semi-final the following year and the majority of that group form the nucleus of the squad Cregan is bringing to Cork. A good cohort of that team would have graduated last year were it still a three-year course.

“Okay, there are famous names in it, but they all play for each other. We’re blessed with what we have.”

Mary I in action against UL
Mary I in action against UL

Cregan is no stranger to the demands heaped on inter-county hurlers and so has endeavoured to minimise the “pulling and dragging” of players that tends to occur around this time of year. He’s adamant that a typical Mary I session consists of nothing more than a few routine ball drills and a quick chat afterwards to discuss whatever fixture lurks around the corner. Why add to their workload when they’re already being flogged elsewhere? “We don’t train, not in the physical sense anyway. We trust in what they are doing with clubs and counties.

“On Tuesday, a number of our players, and I believe a lot of UL and LIT players also, had U21 championship matches in Limerick. That was the height of madness. We talk about burnout, but we talk about it just to talk about it rather than act.

“Third-level hurling has changed dramatically since I first got involved. So much so there are times when I think there is too much emphasis on winning. It is all about winning, winning, winning and how that can only be brought about by relentless training. The training is overdone. We don’t do it because we don’t have the players to come in; they are either below in the Gaeltacht in Kerry up-skilling their Irish or out on teaching practice. We might have a session and there might only be 12, which isn’t much good. Not to mind the training, the things I have seen on the sideline, I wonder am I going mad watching what is going on.”

Fitzgibbon Cup: Players to watch

Diarmuid Byrnes (LIT)

Limerick’s All-Ireland U21 winning captain has lined out at right half-back, centre- back and midfield for Davy Fitzgerald’s side. While best suited to the wing, it’s probable Byrnes will hold down the number six shirt today. Aside from his defensive duties, he’ll share free-taking responsibilities with Peter Duggan — the Patrickswell native has clipped 0-16 (0-11 frees) over their four games.

Darragh O’Donovan (Mary I)

Another member of that successful Limerick U21 team, O’Donovan was substituted 29 minutes into last Sunday’s Division 1B league fixture awayto Kerry. And with TJ Ryan certain to be in attendance this weekend, the Doon youngster will be keen to stake fresh claim for inclusion on the county’s senior team. Full of running and straight out of the Tom Kenny school of midfielders, O’Donovan hit 0-12 in Mary I’s three group ties.

Conor Martin (UL)

The Emeralds clubman was a key figure in UL’s run to Fitzgibbon glory 12 months ago and showed in the quarter-final why he will be pivotal to their title defence this weekend. Martin struck four excellent points from left half-forward and also lent a hand around the middle at a time when CIT had reduced the gap to the minimum and were threatening to overtake their opponents.

Cian O’Callaghan (UCD)

A busy afternoon lies in store for the Dublin senior whose chief job will be anchoring a defensive unit coming face-to-face with a loaded UL attack. The UCD centre-back, aside from his own individual duel, will have his hands full in attempting to drain the supply of ball filtering through toUL’s inside trio of Kevin O’Brien, Tom Morrissey, and Tommy Heffernan. Nicky English’s defence has conceded only one goal this spring; another exercise in frugality required.

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