Sligo’s U20 hurlers face tough championship opener away to Derry

Barry Keenan’s side includes eight of the Celtic Challenge winning side

Ciarán Keenan (Western Gaels) in the 2022 Celtic Challenge final. Pic: Eamonn McMunn.

Sligo Champion

It promises to be a very busy weekend for Sligo on the intercountry hurling front as the U20 county team start their campaign in the All-Ireland U20B hurling Championship away to Derry in the Derry Centre of Excellence at Owenbeg on Saturday afternoon (2.00pm).

Sligo withdrew from this competition last year so Saturday’s match will be the first step back into intercounty competition for over two years for many of the Sligo players.

Team manager Barry Keenan acknowledges that there is an element of picking up the pieces and noted too that an away trip to Derry is the toughest draw that the team could have got.

“It’s a tough start – Derry are among the strongest teams in the competition, and it is always tough to be travelling away”.

Keenan and his Management colleagues Darragh Cox and Niall Feehily have taken over the management of the team for this year and next year and are very much looking to the longer term in developing the team.

Eight of the squad were involved in last year’s Celtic Challenge success at U17 level including the Celtic Challenge captain Ciaran Keenan from Western Gaels, Naomh Eoin’s Robert O’Kelly-Lynch who scored the match winning point and Donnchadh O’Brien from Drumcliffe Rosses Point who scored the only goal in that team’s final 1-11 to 2-7 success over Mayo last June.

Three of the squad – the Western Gaels trio of Cian and Darragh Flynn and Lee Gilmartin – are part of the current Sligo senior squad with both Flynns featuring off the bench in last week’s game National League game against Wicklow.

Keenan said “Over the past two years we have seen the country senior team progress very well with a relatively young team and it is important for Sligo hurling that the U20 grade becomes established as a solid steppingstone for the development of more new players”.

Looking to the longer-term Keenan is in no doubt that the future is bright. “We are building on great work done to progress hurling at the younger ages and I am delighted to have Darragh and Niall working with this team. Darragh’s work has been instrumental in bringing more young people into hurling and he is familiar with the talent out there while as a recent National League winning captain with the Sligo Senior team and an active underage coach in the county, Niall is an ideal role model for those younger players”.

He continued “In terms of intercounty exposure, we will have quite a young group taking to the field on Saturday, but it will be an important experience for these lads who have shown great enthusiasm in the short time that we have had with them. Saturday will be a big ask but we have some great ability in the team and we have nothing to lose.”

The Sligo squad to face Derry is: Evan Ballantine (Calry St Joseph’s), Jack Byron (Western Gaels), Stephen Conway (Easkey), Thomas Davis (Naomh Eoin), Jack Feeney (Coolera Strandhill) Cian Flynn, Darragh Flynn and Seamus Foody (all Western Gaels), Ryan Gillespie (Easkey), Lee Gilmartin (Western Gaels), Marc Gray (Calry St Joseph’s), Niall Hallinan (Western Gaels), Oisín Hennessy (Coolera Strandhill), Matthew Hunt (Calry St Joseph’s), Ciarán Keenan (Western Gaels), Donnchadh O’Brien and Paul O’Brien (both Drumcliffe Rosses Point), Robert O’Kelly-Lynch (Naomh Eoin), Mathew Percy (Drumcliffe Rosses Point), Paul Ruane (Western Gaels), Jaime Walsh (Coolera Strandhill), and Conor White (Naomh Molaise Gaels).