Family matters for Kilcormac-Killoughey as Offaly champions bid to trump Oulart
Wednesday night in Mountbolus and the eccentricity of December hurling is no hardship to Offaly's newest pin-ups.
The pitch has frosted over and the roads around Blueball have acquired that tricky glaze. But there is no pain here for the men of Kilcormac-Killoughey as their winter journey runs ever deeper into the foothills of make-believe.
Nine weeks after winning the county title for the first time, they wind down preparations for a Leinster final.
Who would have believed it? Beaten in three county finals and six semi-finals in the past decade, Kilcormac-Killoughey suddenly have a single hour of hurling to navigate to become provincial champions.
"It feels strange to be training when there's Christmas decorations going up," grins team captain and Offaly hurler of the year Ciaran Slevin.
Beat Oulart-The Ballagh in Nowlan Park tomorrow and maybe the tightest team in hurling will ensure their championship season stretches to a ninth month and, who knows, maybe even beyond that to St Patrick's Day.
The 'Double Ks' amount, essentially, to an extended family. Slevin's brother, Conor, mans the goal. There are three Grogan boys – John, Kevin and Enda; three Geraghtys – James and twins, Peter and Thomas and the Healion twins – Ger and Peter.
Then there's the tangled map of cousins – the Slevins are related to the Kilmartins, who are related to the Mahons; the Leonards are related to the Currams.
Pick a fight with one and you galvanise a small army.
Together, they represent a marriage of two parishes, pressed hard against the road between Birr and Tullamore. In 24 competitive games this year, Kilcormac-Killoughey have lost just once – an April Fool's Day defeat to Shinrone in the county league.
By the time they squared up to St Rynagh's in the October 7 county final, Kilcormac-Killoughey had won 14 and drawn three of their previous 17 games.
Beating the Banagher team then ignited remarkable scenes in Tullamore, for it bridged a 105-year gap back to when an independent Killoughey won the Offaly Championship in 1907.
The celebrations were quickly suspended, though, for 11 of the team would be needed for a county junior football final the following Friday. Which might have been a godsend.
"At the start of the year, we never thought beyond trying to win our first county title," reflects Slevin. "Because we've been knocking on the door for 10 years since getting to our first county final in 2002; I mean, since '04, I've been in a final or semi-final every year.
"But we were beaten by Birr on many occasions. Then Tullamore. And Coolderry the past couple of years.
"It was hard to keep coming back, because the standard in Offaly is fairly high. We get a bad rap in terms of being weak when it comes to inter-county. But you look at Coolderry and Birr, Rynagh's are coming, there's Clareen. It's not easy to win the Offaly Championship.
"We know that better than anyone."
Victories over Carlow champions, Mount Leinster Rangers and Laois' Rathdowney-Errill, have now pitched Danny Owens' team into the biggest game of their lives – a mere 16 days before Christmas.
For full-back and Offaly panelist Ger Healion, the journey has been surreal.
"This time of year, we're generally just going back towards county and getting slogged. But it's great to be hurling. It might be horrible to be looking out at hurling in these conditions, but it's great to be still together, especially when you're with a bunch of friends.
"I suppose, in one sense, we've such a big team – most of the lads are well over six feet – maybe that's kind of suiting us. But hurling in the wet and the muck is just not easy when you're trying to hold the hurl and you can't even feel your fingers."
Healion and goalkeeper Slevin have adhered to a season-long pact of prioritising the protection of the Kilcormac-Killoughey 'square'.
The team has leaked just 20 goals in those 24 competitive outings this season, but – against a forward-line boasting the likes of Rory Jacob and Garrett Sinnott tomorrow – securing a 13th clean sheet will present quite a challenge.
"I actually predicted that Oulart would beat Ballyhale," reveals Healion. "I just thought that they had a better overall team to win it. But going in as underdogs nearly suits us now, it takes the pressure off our backs."
Oulart, beaten in the past two Leinster finals, are on offer at a penal 1/3 to win tomorrow's contest, odds that Ciaran Slevin considers "fairly right." As he puts it: "Sure we're probably unknown to most people around the country."
With such a broad sweep of Wexford county players at their disposal, Oulart are thought to have a vast advantage, primarily in terms of experience given they have appeared in the past nine Wexford county finals.
But Kilcormac-Killoughey manager Owens suspects this factor might be overstated.
"It's all in the mind really," suggests the former Offaly All-Ireland winner. "I mean we've young fellas there that won't give two tuppence for county men this Sunday.
"They'll go out there to give it a lash. You know, we're representing the county and we have to sort of do our best to follow in the footsteps of Coolderry and Birr and St Rynagh's who have done it in the past.
"County men or otherwise won't really come into it. We're going into this with our shoulders back."
The Offaly champions have won two county U-16s as well as a minor title in the past couple of years and would seem to be sowing the seeds for long-term success.
One of the veterans of the senior team, John Grogan, believes patience will be the key.
"The first thing is never to give out to them," says Grogan, a teacher in Banagher secondary school, of the younger players. "Encourage them no matter what. If they miss a few balls, sure what the hell about it? They'll get the next few.
"It's great to see minor teams coming through, some great talent there. If they're brought along the right way, there should be some county finals in the next batch as well."
For now, mind, all the cards are on tomorrow's stable.