St Patrick's, Maghera fancied in Corn Uan Uladh final
Corn Uan Uladh final: Friday January 17 at 6pm in the Loup: St Patrick's, Maghera v St Louis, Ballymena
ST PATRICK'S, Maghera are looking to extend their record haul in Corn Uan Uladh to 17 titles and return to the top after a gap of four years while St Louis, Ballymena won the last of their five titles 69 years ago, a dozen years before Maghera was even opened.
Yet the mid-Antrim school are fancied in many quarters to come through tonight's final to collect the title and there is evidence to support that optimism even though they lost the league encounter to Maghera back in November.
St Louis have been in the past two finals, derby encounters against Cross and Passion College, Ballycastle (CPC) where they were regarded as complete outsiders.
However Ballymena gave their northern neighbours their fill of it, but couldn't prevent them completing an historic three in a row.
But in this year's thrilling semi-final just before the Christmas break they came from 1-5 to 0-5 down to end Ballycastle's four in a row bid with a four points' victory that was chiselled out by hard work right across the pitch, particularly from the defence where Brigid Delargy, Emer McMullan and Katie Molloy were outstanding in holding CPC to just a goal during the second half.
The free-taking of their two All-stars, Maura Downey and Caoimhe Molloy, was also key to the victory while Caitlin Crawford popped up for two crucial points midway through the second half.
There are as many as 10 of last year's team playing tonight and that experience could be key against a Maghera side that edged them 1-6 to 0-7 in Lavey in late November.
St Patrick's are unbeaten since the start of the competition, a 5-9 to 5-7 win over Cross and Passion in their second match the first indication that the school was returning to the top table.
They were clear favourites to win their derby semi-final against St Mary's, Magherafelt before the Christmas break, but struggled to put their opponents away until their first of their two late goals from Aimee Lennon and Clare Gunning.
Having said that, they were the dominant team and had scored 12 points in atrocious weather conditions before the first of the goals.
The driving runs from Blathnaid McLaughlin and Bronagh McCullagh put pressure on the Magherafelt defence time and again and this will be a factor that St Louis will have to work against in the final.
A shoulder injury forced excellent full-back Aisling Porter off shortly after half-time and captain Céat McEldowney expertly filled the gap without any apparent gap appearing at midfield.
Céat and another McEldowney, Carla, are key members of the Slaughtneil senior team who play Scarriff/Ogonnelloge from Clare in the All-Ireland club semi-final at the end of next week.
Both are in great shape at the moment and a threat to St Louis' title aspirations.
While Maghera conceded a couple of soft goals in the semi-final, these had more to do with the conditions than lapses in the defence where Leah Lennon and Laura Scullion have been inspirational alongside Porter who should be fit to take her place on the edge of the goal area.
For nearly three decades this championship was dominated by the south Derry schools of Maghera (16 titles) and St Mary's, Magherafelt (11). Cross and Passion breathed life into it with their breakthrough.
Another different champion would similarly be good for the competition – but Maghera are formidable opposition in finals and, while St Louis have ended Ballycastle's reign, they might find the force of a winning tradition a little too much.
St Patrick's: E McEldowney, H O'Hagan, A Porter, A McNeill, D Donnelly, L Scullion (capt), Carla McEldowney, Céat McEldowney capt, B McCullagh, L Lennon, C Gunning, E Martin, C McElwee, A Lennon, B McLaughlin.
Subs: M Mulholland, A Rafferty, N McCullagh, K Doherty, E Collins, M Ní Lochlainn, N McCusker, L Kelly, E Doherty, A Ní Lochlainn, C O'Kane, H Convery, O Walsh, K McMullan,
D McGuckian, C Convery, A Molloy, E Donnelly, Cora McEldowney, M Comer
St Louis: O Convery, M Mulholland, B Delargy, L McAleese, B Laverty, E McMullan, S McIlhatton, C Molloy, M Downey capt, M McKillen, EL McAreavey, C Crawford, K Molloy, A Traynor, K Doherty
Subs: to be announced