Gonzaga Ultimate: The Lads of 2016

Here’s a great preview (previously released on our FB page due to technical issues) of Junior Indoor Nationals this weekend by Aidan Kelly about the first Irish team to play at the tournament

Ultimate has been rapidly growing on our emerald isle for a number of years now, and while university level still reigns supreme in terms of recruiting new talent to the game, a considerable amount of effort has started to be put into schools programmes across the country. These have, in the past, benefited colleges and universities by giving them a potential intake of players that already have two or three year’s worth of experience before playing at Intervarsity level. The most successful of these school programmes is Gonzaga, located in Ranelagh, Dublin.

Founded 10 years ago, Gonzaga Ultimate was the brainchild of Alan ‘Dman’ Doyle, a seasoned veteran in the Irish Ultimate community, who has since gone on to coach Ireland Junior teams and is currently in the middle of running the Irish Senior Women’s team that will be heading to London this summer. Alan, who at the time was I.T. Manager of the school, introduced the sport to students in their transition year, and it has remained a mainstay in the school’s sports curriculum ever since – although not without a huge amount of effort.

Mark Earley, who is currently a teacher at Gonzaga, has been coaching the budding talent since 2007, and experienced some struggles in their maiden years:

“At the start it was tough” he remembers. “The sport was regarded as a niche thing for people who weren’t good enough or big enough for rugby. We often had training sessions with fewer than 10 players and when I started coaching in 2007, a year after Alan set up the club, the coaches often had to play just to make up a game of four-on-four. We originally aimed it at 16 to 18-year-olds, but since then I’ve brought in a junior’s training for the 12 to 15-year-olds. That has allowed players to play from a young age and develop all the way up.”

Since then, the club has built an amazingly consistent base of players each year, with many of Gonzaga’s students going on to play for national teams at under 17 and under 20 levels, as well as competing at (and winning) All-Ireland national events. On top of that, many of their alumni have gone on to achieve bigger and bolder things in Ultimate since graduating from the school. Currently, Mark coaches around 60 schoolboys from 1st to 6th years.

However, the main talking point of this piece is not just the rich past that Gonzaga possesses, but the exciting present. The current crop of final year students is thought to be a special and unique bunch of players. Perhaps akin to the ‘golden generation’ of Irish Rugby with O’Driscoll, O’Connell, O’Gara and company, we seem to be witnessing our first genuine ‘golden generation’ of Irish Ultimate thanks to Gonzaga. The class of 2016 is host to a number of players who have risen through the under-age Ireland levels and proved that despite their young age, they can hang with, and even best, players five or six years their senior.

A large number of these lads have made up a core part of the successful Irish Junior Open team for the last two years, as well as playing at club level with Jabba the Huck (2015 All-Ireland Open Champions) and Ranelagh (2012, 2013, 2014 All-Ireland Open Champions). With so much valuable experience at a high level of Ultimate already under their belts, the future is only looking brighter as many of the lads enter the Inter-Varsity level in September. But what makes this crop so unique? Mark puts it down to a few reasons:

“Firstly, their sheer enthusiasm for and dedication to the sport as a group,” he says. “I remember a coach came to visit with a school team for a game years ago and was amazed by how there were discs being thrown during break-time alongside the rugby balls, footballs and so on – an uncommon sight around Dublin. These players threw every day at every opportunity. They threw more than I ever did as a young college player and their throws improved hugely as a result. I see it in some of the younger players coming through now – a sort of need to be out there throwing.

“The second reason is the dedication and inspiration they got from the coaches they had. Sure, I like to take some of the credit, but what I try to do here is very simple: just let them play and enjoy the sport. Training sessions are relatively loose and the philosophy is to get students to enjoy a new sport in an encouraging atmosphere and hopefully they’ll come back, not necessarily provide them with a tactical nous and the most intricate drills at my disposal.

“Elsewhere, when they go to camps with under 17 teams and then the under 20s, they meet athletic teammates and driven coaches who push them to be better players. They are fed new methods, given precise roles in their teams and they quickly mature as both players and leaders. The change in them is evident each autumn when they return with more international experience and an ever-growing thirst for the sport.

“And finally, they are good friends and enjoy each other’s company. Years of shared experiences on and off the pitch has helped them gel. Any successful club or national team will know how important this friendship ingredient is. A good atmosphere breeds positivity and security – somewhere that learning can flourish.”

Now in their final few months of school, you would expect this to be the time where they put away the little piece of plastic and replace them with textbooks. But this group have one more goal set out in front of them as collective members of Gonzaga Ultimate: this weekend, the team will fly over to Wolverhampton to compete at UKU Junior Indoor Nationals.

Gonzaga celebrated! Photo by Mark Earley.
Gonzaga celebrates! Photo by Mark Earley.

The idea was formed way back in September, when Mark wanted to find a new way to challenge the young lads, who had essentially dominated the Irish Junior level for the last few years. In 2015, their teams finished 1st, 2nd and 4th at the All-Ireland Indoor Schools Championships, and the idea of travelling across to the UK to compete with the best UK teams was a mouth-watering prospect for them. After some discussions with Benji Heywood, Joe Wyatt and Si Hill of the UKU, they were generously offered a spot to attend the tournament and have since proven how up for the competition they are by entering and finishing a record 5th at the All-Ireland Indoor Championships last month, beating last year’s winners Rebel on the way.

“With the tournament coming up this weekend we now have both a schedule and the seedings so it’s all getting more real,” Mark admitted. “The 13 players going are all in 6th year and as of last Monday they began their Mock Leaving Cert (GCSE equivalent) exams, which continue once we return from the tournament. It’s not ideal timing but the school management, teaching staff and parents have been extremely supportive. Hopefully the lads will bring a few books with them to keep up the study over the weekend. We’ll see…!

“This will be my last season coaching this particular group of players, students I’ve watched grow for the past six years, who I’ve travelled with, played alongside – and against – and who I’ve been genuinely honoured to coach. They’re a great bunch and it’ll be a real shame when they move on.”

No matter the outcome of their adventure this weekend overseas, this group of players have set the benchmark for underage Ultimate across the country, and will probably cause a massive stir in the college game come September, as well. While in the past college captains would be delighted to have a fresher who could throw a flick, some will be getting bona fide game-changers added to their squads from the get-go. So, when these captains are thanking the heavens come Intervarsity season, they can thank Mark Earley, Alan Doyle and company for their contributions to our first ‘golden generation’. Mark, though, saves his appreciation for the lads themselves:

“Thanks lads, and good luck. Here’s to going out on a high!”