Following the popular article Hurling in Montana – A New Frontier, Brian Barry blogs the journey of Montana Grizzlies Hurling Club as they prepare for the National Colleges Championship in New York next month.
Several hundred spectators turned out at Washington Grizzly Stadium in Missoula on Saturday to witness the first ever hurling game in Montana history. Hurling in a 27,000 seater stadium; the biggest in the State. A sizable crowd attending a hurling game in Montana was inconceivable this time last year. The city has been bitten by the hurling bug. It is here to stay.
The club split for the University of Montana’s Christmas break on a high, with a buzz surrounding the team. Coming back in January, it was down to business. But we encountered more logistical problems with Montana’s adaptability to the sport; -30 degrees Celsius or three foot of snow is hardly conducive to hurling, and so we were trapped indoors for the long winter months. Be it a handball alley on a Tuesday, or the bigger hall of the college’s Schreiber Gym on a Thursday, this was where the strides were made. Upon our first outdoor session after almost four months in March, it became clear to Naoise Waldron, club founder, and I that this was a team on the up, and results would start coming in once the season started.
The recruitment drive continued throughout the early part of the year. Amongst these was Jema Rushe, sister of Dublin star Liam. Add that to a Corkonian and a Kerryman fresh off the plane in January and our roster comprising of Americans began to take shape quickly. The likes of our professional bullfighter, and ex-wrestlers, lacrosse players, and bodybuilders came on leaps and bounds. It soon became apparent to the Montana public that this is not a sports team that is simply another avenue to promote Irish culture in the area, such as a céilí band; this is a winning team.
Word quickly spread around the city. For a relatively small university, in the grander American scheme of things, to be qualified for a National Championship in a sport is a big deal in Missoula, especially considering the calibre of colleges competing in the tournament. Fundraising to get our motley crew of hurlers to New York focused around our weekly fundraisers in Sean Kelly’s Irish pub in the town, as well as donations based on the good will of the Irish-American community in the state, in particular The Friends of Irish Studies program in the University.
This columnist wrote a piece during the off-season lambasting the GPA for not helping clubs springing up across America. The GPA weathered the storm, refusing to respond. However, much to their credit, the GAA replied and offered help. We are extremely grateful to the North American County Board and the National Collegiate GAA for sending us a package of six helmets, six hurls, and six sliotars; great infrastructure for any club starting out.
When all the talking was done, it was time to deliver on the pitch. Competing in the Cascade Hurling League, spanning across the North-West of the United States, we opened our season with the Buffalo Cup in Portland, Oregon, a mere nine-hour drive away. After two wins in the group against Revenants Hurling Albany and Seattle Gaels, we faced Columbia Red Branch in the final, the only team to have beaten us in our first tournament last November, and last year’s Cascade champions. We exacted revenge in a tight game, and the first ever bit of hurling silverware was brought back to Missoula.
A trophy in the bag drew further attention to the club. A host of media outlets took notice, and reported on the team’s prowess. Several appearances on television, radio and newspapers, both here and in Ireland, enhanced the growing reputation of the club. We are now recognised around the town by strangers when donning the jersey, or carrying a hurl.
However, all things revolved around April 19th. We organised the McEneaney Cup to showcase competitive hurling to the people of Montana for the very first time, on the biggest stage in the state. The influence of Traolach Ó Riordáin, director of the Irish Studies program in the University, helped us secure Washington Grizzly Stadium, home to the college American Football team, for the event.
The day was a massive success. A big crowd raised eyebrows around the college as interest in this new sport peaked. The McEneaney Cup, named after local man Terry ‘Turbo’ McEneaney who has supported the club from the outset, was up for grabs. The team put on an exhibition, beating the Valley Berzerkers and Columbia Red Branch, who made the long trip, to capture the cup.
Hurling has found a new home in Montana; a new stronghold. The town is behind us. One month to the National Championships in New York. Griz Abú.
Pundit Arena, Brian Barry.