Quinlan desperate to make up for painful lost years as Cats bid to derail Cork juggernaut
It is five years since Ann Downey introduced the then 17-year-old Sarah Ann Quinlan to elite camogie with Kilkenny, but injury has disrupted the Young Irelands woman's progress in the meantime.
She is pushing hard to return to the line-up for next Sunday's Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior final, but the fact that she is in the reckoning at all is a victory and whether her contribution is from the start or off the bench, she feels privileged to be in the position to do her best for the county and her team-mates.
Her debut season had been a tremendous experience and after a 12-month hiatus in her Leaving Cert year, she returned in 2013, invigorated by the prospect of what lay ahead.
What lay ahead, however, was a season of dashed dreams. First, Quinlan broke her ankle, but made it back in June. The real agony lay in damaging her cruciate knee ligament with an All-Ireland final looming.
"Fairly disappointing" is how she describes it now, but watching the Noresiders lose to Galway was torturous.
Quinlan came on as a sub in the intermediate decider in 2014, which also ended in defeat, and was a regular for the second string last year, having forced her way back into the senior squad. With Downey handed the reins once more at the beginning of this season, she flourished.
Kilkenny were given the fright of their lives by Tipperary in the National League semi-final and Quinlan's introduction was critical in the extra-time victory, her industry setting up a vital goal for Denise Gaule.
She scored a point in the subsequent annexation of the league crown against Galway, but despite performing in two championship victories over Derry and Dublin, lost her place.
It got worse when the 22-year-old injured her knee in the quarter-final against Offaly. It forced her out of the extra-time semi-final defeat of Galway, but it could have been a lot worse, as she initially feared being sidelined for another All-Ireland.
"It was very tough watching it, but I thought I'd be out for a lot longer," Quinlan explains. "I thought it was the cruciate again, so I was fairly upset, but the results came back okay and I was back training the last week or two, so I'm delighted.
"It's very hard to get back in, but I'm trying my best and feeling good. The competition is hard, but I'll keep putting the pressure on them anyway.
"I came on in the Offaly game, but the first ball I got, the knee went and I came off straight away. I didn't know what was wrong, but thankfully, while I had to rest it for three or four weeks because of a bit of bruising and cartilage damage, I thought it would be worse and it feels grand now again."
She is extremely grateful to Downey for her support. With the manager's twin, Angela, and Breda Holmes also involved in the backroom team, there is no shortage of experience and winning know-how around.
"They give you confidence. I don't know how to describe it, but it's just their presence there. They believe in Kilkenny camogie so much and that passes on. Every training, they're pushing us on," she says. "I think Ann believed in us from her first time with us. And she's so passionate about Kilkenny camogie. We knew when she left, she wasn't finished with Kilkenny camogie, so when she came back, it was brilliant."
Paddy Mullally and Conor Phelan are former All-Ireland winning hurlers, while Mark Cooney has come in for the knockout stages and Quinlan knows him well, having been captain of the Maynooth team that reached this year's Purcell Cup final under his tutelage.
"We have a great backroom and it just feels right. So far, so good," she says.
Charlie Carter is manager of Young Irelands this season as the Gowran outfit attempt to finally get over the line in the Junior Championship, and DJ Carey is a clubmate. So there are no shortage of legends for Quinlan to draw from it seems. With a newly-acquired business accountancy degree in her pocket, Quinlan has sent out a few CVs, but in truth, the job search is taking a back seat until after next Sunday, and Cork.
"They're like the Kilkenny hurlers, they're there I don't know how many years, going for a three in a row now. We just have to match their physicality, their work rate on the day and hopefully pull out the win. They're such tough opposition," she says.
"It's going to be very tough and we know that, but we're relishing the challenge and hoping we'll do the job."
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