Ulster U17 Hurling Championship final
Antrim 6-13 Down 1-13
GOAL-HUNGRY Antrim retained the Danny McNaughton Cup as they hit three majors in each half to account for Down at Dunsilly on Saturday.
Despite the snow late in the week, the pitch was in as good a shape as it could have been, but a strong wind would ensure the teams had to alter their strategy in each half with Antrim's eye for the net proving crucial as they found themselves two up at the break with the conditions in their favour to come.
Roan McGarry top-scored with 2-7 for Alan Rainey's Saffrons who had pulled away after the break.
Down continued to battle but were over-reliant on Cathal Coleman and Shea Pucci in attack with the drop accounting for all of their scores, while the hosts had a much healthier spread and that was telling as they claimed the honours and a place in Leinster.
"Playing against the wind in the first half, we knew it was going to be tough and we just wanted to come in a couple of points down or level, but we got a couple of points ahead and that was it," said Rainey.
"Getting points into that gale-force wind (was tough) so we tried to work the ball in two get goals and keep us in the game, so the first half went to plan.
"We could have taken a few more scores, but the second half showed what we're all about and the type of hurling we're trying to play.
"We knew what Down would bring. They had a couple of players back (from the group game) and the first game we played them wasn't a fair reflection of what they are like.
"We stuck to the game plan, the boys didn't panic at half-time and we got to reset and tell them what we wanted to do. In fairness, the lads delivered so we're extremely proud of them.
"To come in and train four or five times per week when you're used to only one is a big ask for these lads. They've really committed and are worthy winners."
Champions! pic.twitter.com/NCcIBD4mff— Antrim GAA (@AontroimGAA) March 11, 2023
Antrim had scored a big win over Down in the group stage, so the onus was on the Ardsmen to get off to a good start, yet it couldn't have been worse as Antrim's Enda McGurk had the ball in the net on 30 seconds. The St John's man shot for goal into the wind, but the ball dipped wickedly and deceived Cian Clarke in the Down goal.
Such a blow could have left Down feeling a little sorry for themselves, but they responded brilliantly as Coleman landed a free and then from play either side of a Pucci effort on the turn to level.
Ronan Fitzgerald and Coleman traded points before Down hit the front with Pucci landing another beauty over his shoulder and the visitors had belief.
However, they were rocked again on 18 minutes as Charlie McAuley played an excellent low diagonal ball into the forwards with Fitzgerald meeting it to gather and race through and although Clarke got to his shot, there was enough power for it to carry into the net.
Coleman hit back at the other end, but Roan McGarry opened his account from a free and then goal number three arrived as McGarry took the ball at pace and scampered through to finish superbly.
Down again responded with a trio of points from Coleman to trim the margin to two.
After the sides traded another couple of points each Niall Magee landed for the Saffrons with Coleman replying as that two-point margin remained between the teams at the half, with Antrim 3-5 to 0-12 up.
With the elements to come, Antrim would have felt good about themselves and they were quick to press home their advantage as McGarry pointed a free and then on 34 minutes, half-time substitute Fionn Jemfrey saw his shot saved by Clarke who stopped a rebound effort, but the ball broke to Orrin O'Connor who made no mistake from close range.
McGarry pointed a free with Ben O'Kane adding from play as suddenly the gap was eight and that would increase further on 40 minutes as O'Connor gather in the corner and did well to find the advancing Daragh Donnelly to lash to the net and put the game to bed.
Playing into the wind, Down struggled to gain any headway as they were no longer able to find their range from out the field and it was midway through the second period before Coleman added to their tally from a free.
They really needed goals and the full-forward had a 20-metre shot at goal stopped, but there was no issue finding the net at the other end as Antrim saved their best goal for last when McGarry met Liam Glackin's long delivery in stride to double on it into the top corner.
The Saffrons would finish with a flourish as McGarry converted three frees and Ben O'Kane from play, but it was Down who had the final say as Pucci saw a 20-metre free stopped on the line but with what proved the last act of the game, he regathered and found a gap to squeeze to the net.
Still, the issue was long decided as Antrim took the title and move into the Leinster Championship where they will meet Galway in their opening fixture at Darver in a couple of weeks.
"We know what Leinster's going to bring," Rainey accepts.
"Galway and Kilkenny are tipped for the All-Ireland and that's where we want to be. We think we should be in there (Leinster) every year rather than go through this every year.
"Maybe a few warm-up games have been good for us but we'll take everything on board and look forward to Galway in two weeks' time."
ANTRIM: S Og McLaren; R Cunning, C Baudant, J Scullion; N Magee (0-1), L Glackin, C McAuley; E McGurk (1-1), B O'Kane (0-2); R Fitzgerald (1-2), C Kane, D Donnelly (1-0); R McGarry (2-7, 0-7 frees), O O'Connor (1-0), C Mooney.
Subs: F Jemfrey for C Kane (HT), P McDonnell for R Fitzgerald (53), S Og Blaney for D Donnelly (57), C Walsh for O O'Connor (59), C Shortt for R Cunning (60).
DOWN: C Clarke; D Rogers, J Dynes, P McGarry; S McCollum, L Morgan, S Doyle; P Loughrey, R Teggart; C Boyle, S Pucci (1-3), B Teggart; J Dougan, C Coleman (0-10, 7 frees), S McCarthy.
Subs: B Murray for D Rogers (48), M Gilmore for C Boyle (52), F Ferguson for S McCollum (57)
REFEREE: James Connors (Donegal).