Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship, quarter-final
St John's 2-21 Loughgiel Shamrocks 1-22

HAVING come so close in recent seasons, St John's finally managed to take down one of Antrim superpowers on Sunday evening as they held off a Loughgiel fightback to reach the semi-final of the Senior Hurling Championship.

Last year, the Johnnies were left crestfallen when losing to the Shamrocks in extra-time at the semi-finals stage and at one stage it seemed like this could transpire once again as the North Antrim men battled back from eight points down to level and with momentum on their side, looked as though they could push for victory. But not this time. 

In what was a thrilling contest played under the floodlights at Portglenone, the Johnnies held their nerve and found the scores to get back ahead and stay there until the final whistle as they booked their place in the last four for the fourth-straight season.

There is a huge challenge ahead against Dunloy on Sunday week, but they Corrigan Park side will enter that game with renewed confidence having ended something of a hoodoo on Sunday and in fairness, were value for their win.

There were some nervy moments and the Johnnies will owe their goalkeeper, Simon Doherty, a huge depth of gratitude for making some stunning saves, while at the other end, Shea Shannon was dead-eyed in front of the posts, picking off 11 points.

Domhnall Nugent is challenged by Eddie McCloskey

Domhnall Nugent is challenged by Eddie McCloskey

That tally was eclipsed by James McNaughton's dozen for the Shamrocks and while he had a much greater supporting cast from the previous week's defeat to Rossa in the group stage, a run of Loughgiel wides before the break would ultimately come back to bite.

"Last year was very difficult for us," Doherty said after.

"It's the first time we've beaten one of the big three North Antrim teams in the Championship. We've been knocking on the door for a number of years. We've had some heartache over the last three, four, five years, but we're now back in a semi-final.

"We've been in semi-finals over the past three years and we've drawn semi-finals over the last few years.

"Dunloy is a brilliant team; we played them last week in the group stage and they scored 2-30. They are a fantatstic team and we know the qualities they have, so we know we need to lift ourselves.

"If we can replicate the level of intensity and performance we gave tonight, we'll be in with a good shout."

That defeat on home turf last Sunday suggested that there would be a sting from the Shamrocks, but it took a while for them to find their feet as the Johnnies tore into this game from the off and were three points to the good through placed balls from Shannon before McNaughton got the men in red on the board.

Heading into this game, many observers gave the Johnnies the edge, yet that was based on them delivering a top performance full of energy and intensity. They had arrived with just that as Michael Bradley fired over their first from play and then Shannon pointed another free to open four-point gap.

Loughgiel were just being swallowed up in attack in the early stages, but gradually began to get into a flow and points from Ciaran McKay - one of their standouts - Christy McGarry and Eddie McCloskey suggested they would start to fully click into gear in attack, but St John's just seemed that sharper and replied with three of their own as Micheal Dudley and Conor Johnston opened their accounts for the day with Shannon adding another.

After McNaughton converted a free at the other end, it would get much better for the Johnnies on 17 minutes as Dudley read the play superbly to get int between two Loughgiel players to intercept a pass, burst towards goal and lay-off for Johnston who was not going to be asked twice so close to goal as he cracked to the net.

This helped the city side into a 1-8 to 0-6 lead at the water-break and a long free fro Shannon extended the gap further, but Loughgiel just seemed to be gaining a bit of traction again with McKay, McNaughton and the hard-working Paul Paul all splitting the uprights. They would pass up several good chances with the ball sailing wide and had to be content to go score-for-score down the stretch, but it was Johnston who had the final say of the half, emerging from a ruck to lash over and make it 1-12 to 0-11 at the half with a brief flare-up after the whistle eventually ending to Johnnies' substitute goalkeeper Declan Cregan shown red just before play resumed.

Shannon and McNaughton traded early scores after the restart, but the Johnnies struck for what looked to be a game-breaking second goal on 33 minutes as Peter McCallin played a magnificent hand-pass out to Ciaran Johnston who cut inside and fired high to the net.

Two of then next three points - including one from play by Domhnall Nugent - helped the Johnnies into an eight-point lead and seemingly in command, but Loughgiel began to eat into the lead as they responded brilliantly, out-scoring St John's 1-6 to 0-1 for the remainder of the third quarter to draw level at the water-break.

McNaughton landed four of the points, one from a 65 after Doherty had saved brilliantly from Paul Boyle, but the key score came on 46 minutes as Christy McGarry rose to take down the ball close to goal and while he was crowed out, the slitter squirted free and substitute Rian McMullan forced it to the net.

Rian McMullan forces the ball into the net for Loughgiel

Rian McMullan forces the ball into the net for Loughgiel

At 2-16 to 1-19, it appeared Loughgiel had tipped the pendulum in their favour, but they just couldn't find the leading score in this game with McCallin pointing only for McNaughton to level again.

Shannon nailed a 65 and then Conor Johnston steadied and scored to open a two-point gap, but another decisive moment would come at the other end as McMullan appeared certain to get his second goal only for Doherty to make a brilliant stop.

McGarry would point to leave one in it, but the Johnnies would always find a reply with Shannon and McNaughton trading pointed frees and an injury-time score from Conal Morgan leaving two in it again, forcing Loughgiel to search for a goal to save their season, but the chances had already come and gone as St John's held on for a seminal win as they earned a crack at Dunloy in the semi-final.

ST JOHN'S: S Doherty; A McMahon, R McNulty, J Bohill; C Bohill, D Nugent (0-1), C Morgan (0-1); M Bradley (0-1), O Donnelly; M Dudley (0-3), S Shannon (0-11, 8 frees, 2 65s), Conor Johnston (1-3); D Carson, Ciaran Johnston (1-0), P McCallin (0-1).
Subs: J Peoples for O Donnelly (HT), A Bradley for D Carson (45), S Tierney for J Peoples (55).

LOUGHGIEL: C O'Connell; S Dobbin, T McCloskey, R McCloskey; C McKay (0-2), D McMullan, Deaghlan McCloskey; Dan McCloskey, S McGrath; P Boyle (0-2), E McCloskey (0-2), D McKinley; M McGarry, J McNaughton (0-12, 8 frees, 1 65), C McGarry (0-3).
Subs: R McMullan (1-0) for M McGarry (HT), N McNaughton for D McKinley (42)

REFEREE: Mark O'Neill (Armoy)