A tale of camouflaged sliotars, poison ivy and the kite-eating tree

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One of the things every American hurling and camogie player hates is losing a ball.

No, I’m not talking about losing control of the sliotar in the middle of a match, because that certainly sucks, but something much worse. What I’m talking about is actually hitting the ball and seeing it disappear into a patch of weeds, behind some shrubs or launching it into some horrifically inaccessible area.

Just like Charlie Brown, every hurler has his or her own version of the kite-eating tree, except we now know American plant life likes the taste of apple-sized Irish sports equipment.

It’s just a ball, I can hear you say. Just get another one.

Well, therein is the problem. For hurlers in America, it’s actually quite difficult to maintain a steady supply of equipment. You can’t go down to Dick’s Sporting Goods and buy a 12-pack of hurling balls.

In most cases you need to have them shipped from Ireland, at about $10 a ball. (Granted, you can get them stateside from specialty dealers, but even their supplies are limited.)

And so every hurler in America knows the great angst we suffer when we bash a sliotar into the weeds. We know we’ll be spending 10-15 minutes at minimum to track it down because if we don’t have enough sliotars, there’s no way to play the game.

And that brings me to a story of this ball-eating section of my backyard:

This friendly looking hedge is actually a sliotar-eating monster in disguise.

This friendly looking patch of vegetation is actually a sliotar-eating monster in disguise.

In a rare opportunity a few weeks ago, a friend came to town who, at the very least, had heard of hurling. While we chatted, I said “Hey, you want to go knock the hurling ball around?”

He agreed, and outside we went to bat the sliotar around. After a few volleys we were getting warmed up and I decided to fire a “line drive” to him. He went for the catch, missed and the ball zipped into what could only be called a “semi-gardened” patch of vegetation surrounding the fence on my property.

I saw it fly into the plants, and they swallowed it up.

“No biggie,” I thought as a seed of  angst planted itself in my mind, “I have a few spare balls,” and we switched to one of them as we finished up our game of catch.

Afterwords, I used my hurley to dig around through the patch, which included some daylilies, decorative ivy and morning glories all of which were intertwined with a fence.

But the ball was gone. It had disappeared completely.

Just to make sure, I checked the front of the fence, the back of the fence, and as far in as the hurley would allow me to blindly probe.

Nothing. No ball.

I searched for 10 minutes and could not find it. These sliotars, I have learned, they have a nasty habit of playing hide-and-go-seek.

With my friend waiting to go to dinner, I gave up and promised to return another day and find the missing ball.

A day or so later, I was back. This time I had a shovel, and I poked around. I shoved aside the vines, mashed down the daylilies.

HERE'S AN IDEAS: Perhaps hurlers should just offer a sacrifice to the plants in advance of every practice.

HERE’S AN IDEA: Perhaps hurlers should just offer a sliotar-based sacrifice to the plant kingdom in advance of every practice.

While there was no hurling ball to be found, I did spot a few ropes of poison ivy. “Crap,” I thought, “I’ll have to pull that out to find it.”

The next day I had geared up for the worst: Gloves, long sleeve shirt and a hat.

With my armor donned, I led an assault against the poison ivy. I tore it up, threw it in the trash and went back for more. And when it was all gone,  guess what? Still no ball.

Part of the problem that day was a strict timeline — if you get a tiny bit of poison ivy resin on you, the clock starts: 30 minutes or you risk it attaching to your skin. Playing it safe, I searched for about five minutes and then ran back into the house, stripped naked and carefully washed myself down with cold water.

And 24 hours later? You guessed it — I had poison ivy rashes all over my arm.

Stupid ball.

A week and four or five thunderstorms later, the rashes now just a faint pink afterglow and I was ready to renew my search. This time I was using one of those clawed garden tools. The rain, I figured, soaked the ball, made it squishy. That meant the claw could helpfully skewer it for easy retrieval.  I raked across the now poison-free ivy. I dug through tangled base of daylilies.

No ball. Nothing. Not even a piece of litter blown in from the alley.

And so I gave up.

The ball clearly sprouted legs and walked to someone else’s yard after its layover in my monster-filled patch of weeds.

(Such obviously sentient activity reminded me about another time I lost a ball. I hit it over the bank of my parents’ yard and into a rock-strewn drainage ditch. The ball, apparently satisfied with its new company, camouflaged itself and went native, never to be found again.)

But this ball decided to come back. Perhaps the other lawn wasn’t Irish enough for it.

About two weeks after the claw-based search, I was out mowing the lawn, and — you guessed it — my lawnmower used its blood-hound like senses to uncover its hiding spot.

As I was working close to the ominously dangerous  patch of vegetation, I rolled close to the daylilies, there was a loud bang and the mower choked itself to a stop.

I grimaced, knowing exactly what I hit.

Yep, my long-lost sliotar. Worth a measly $10, and it cost me a case of poison ivy, hours worth of angst and now a new mower blade to boot.

But I got my ball back.

Whew!

 

 

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Five key skills that make a great hurler

MOTION: Hurling isn't a game where you just stand around. You need to be on the move through the entire game. (Photo courtesy of Columbia Red Branch Hurling)

MOTION: Hurling isn’t a game where you just stand around. You need to be on the move through the entire game. (Photo courtesy of Columbia Red Branch Hurling)

In my previous posts responding to the questions from new-hurler Mike, I talked about enhancing game awareness in hurling and some helpful hurling videos for new players.

This time I want to sum up a few things that are key development points for every person playing hurling or its sister sport, camogie.

More importantly, I offer a few suggestions on how you can work on these aspects on your own and away from the your regular practice.
  • STAMINA — Hurling is a sport where you are in constant motion if the sliotar is within half-a-field of you. That means that you’re easily moving 70 percent of the time. As you’re on the field you can’t just stand there, you have to constantly be ducking around other players, avoiding your mark and keeping the ball in sight. All that hustling means that you have to have some some fuel in the tank at all the right times.  Since I’m in my late-late 30s, this is clearly my biggest fault — I just get winded way too quickly. Boosting your stamina comes in two forms — diet and exercise. Diet wise, you need to be eating a high fruit and high veggie diet and keep your hydration levels at their peak. For exercise, it’s all about practicing ahead of time to keep moving. Running is the best exercise for sure to develop stamina, but suicide sprints are even better.
  • FOOT SPEED — While I talk about movement in the section above, a totally separate focus needs to be placed on maximizing your top speed. You can impress your coach two ways: (a) Having a sensational blow-them-out-of-water sprint or (b) Having a high-speed cruising run. Either is fine. Increasing foot speed is a remarkably difficult feat, though. My suggestion is to work on increasing the speed of the “chop” in your run — you know the quickness of your foot hitting the ground. In particular, the best way to do this is speeding through “tire” or ladder drills.  You can do these at home on your own simply by laying a ladder on the ground and running through the openings as fast as possible — making sure not to trip.
  • ONE-TOUCH POSSESSION — Over in Ireland, the one-touch possession is taught at the earliest levels of learning the sport of hurling. The theory of the one-touch is that you need to gain possession of the ball in one attempt. You can’t drop it or bobble it. You need to gain immediate possession. This buys you time on the field because the other players are still reacting from their own attempt to gain control of the sliotar for themselves. Increasing your one-touch performance is best with the assistance of another player, or at least a person willing to throw the ball to you. To practice have the other player throw or hit the ball toward you. Your job is to scramble for the catch or, if you don’t make it, pop it up from the ground and gain immediate possession. Once you do, take three steps and fire it back to your helper.
  • ACCURATE PASSING — One of the key skills of the game, passing helps teams keep control of the ball, which means more scoring opportunities. When you practice passing, you must practice at both short distances and long distances, and while you are in motion. The exercise in the section above transitions into the exercise you can do to improve your passing. Once you have the ball, you must get it within three yards of the your target.  If you haven’t recruited a helper, that’s fine — just fire your passes at a tree trunk or other vertical target. Remember, your passes shouldn’t necessarily be powerhouse hits. A more gentle strike will help your teammate catch the sliotar.
  • ACCURATE STRIKING — This skill is key for everyone, not just midfielders and full forwards. You need to practice hitting the ball into a goal or a goal-like structure. Most of all, practice making points because “racking up points” is the scoring style that can be entirely in your control — the opposing team can rarely take a point from you once it gets over their heads. Scoring goals, on the other hand, requires being close and betting on the fact that the goalkeeper is off his game.  To work on point-scoring, strike from a variety of distances and, most importantly, angles with the intent to hit a high-up zone in the point-scoring area. Don’t have any hurling goals around? Never fear. I’ve substituted batting cages, baseball backstops, football goal posts and even trees for my practice goal.  Further, remember that you need to be making these strikes while on the run. Nobody in hurling will let you stand around and take a shot at the goal.

Visit the Columbia Red Branch Hurling Club in the Portland, Wash., area.

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More catching tips for hurling

A while back, I posted a lengthy entry on my inability to catch the ball. I figured it would be a good time to revisit the idea with some more tips on making good catches in hurling.

TIME SAVER: If you become skilled at catching the sliotar in a game of hurling, you will literally gain time in the game. How so? Because you won't have to waste time trying to pick the ball up or stealing it from your opponent.


Before you continue on, be sure to read this entry too. While it focuses on goalkeeper skills, it also has a few tips on controlling the ball.

THE FOCUS

It’s important to remember that making good catches is truly a vital skill for the game. If you can instantly take control of a ball that comes near you, then your team is at an immediate advantage. You essentially gain time to execute your next play when you catch the ball, rather than scrambling to get control of it from the ground.

BEFORE NOT AFTER: When you are moving to catch the ball, you should always plan to get your body in front of the ball. Don’t extend your hand beyond your body to catch it because if you miss it, the ball just keeps going. If you put your body in front of the ball and you fail to catch it, the ball will likely hit you and immediately stop. That gives you another opportunity to take control of it.

UNDER NOT OVER: While it’s not always possible, try to catch the sliotar with an underhanded catch. This allows you to immediately slap it against your chest and protect it from other players. In fact, many players will position their arm flat against the chest, making their wrist a hinge that opens up for the catch and clamps closed when they ball arrives. Of course, you can’t always catch that way, but this is really good for catching hand passes and long balls where you’re the only reciever.

THE SPACE BETWEEN: When you’re not able to make an underhand catch, the best place to catch the sliotar is in the space where your fingers meet your palm. This provides just enough “give” to kill off the ball’s momentum. If you catch the ball straight into your palm, it tends to bounce back out unless you snap your fingers closed at the proper moment. If you try to catch the ball completely with your fingers, you put them at risk for injury if the ball slams into the fingertips by accident — which is something I have done many times.

CHECK THIS OUT

While I was searching for art for this entry, I spotted one of my own drawings being used on an Irish GAA site to explain how to hold a hurley. Makes me proud that I, an American, am finally helping the Irish learn their own sport! Check it out here.

Also, if you want to buy that sliotar-in-hand clock-statue, go here.

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Reflections on a day in Allentown

Two days later and my hamstrings are still pretty shaky from my game time at the recent round-robin hurling tournament in South Whitehall Township, Pa.

The Saturday, May 5, Gaelic Athletic Association event was hosted by the the Allentown Hibernians Hurling Club, and also featured teams from Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Md. Hoboken, N.J., and Washington, D.C.

The Hoboken squad, the Guards, won the tournament, and my squad, the Baltimore Bohemians, came in third.

Here's the score-sheet from the May 5 games in Allentown. Scores in hurling are listed with two numbers per team. The first number is the number of goals scored, the second is the number of over-the-crossbar points the teams notched. Each over-the-crossbar shot earns one point to the final score. Each goal is worth three points.

THE SETTING

Just like last year, the tournament took place in the shadow of Dorney Park at a glen off of Haines Mill Road. Although there was only one Port-a-Potty for the 100-or-so players, everything else was great. The field itself was the best I’ve played on so far, with springy short grass and regulation-sized goals.

In the world of American hurling, both of those are quite a rarity. Most of the time we’re playing on the “left-over” or forgotten fields not used by anyone else. As for goals, sometimes we use way-too small lacrosse goals. Other times, we get soccer goals that have nets meant to stop soccer balls, not baseball-sized sliotars. And more than once, we’ve just been defending a slightly modified American football goal.

But Allentown? They made us feel appreciated and even bought lunch for players from every team. And every team that showed up got a 12-pack of sliotars, the super-expensive and easy-to-lose specialty balls used in the game.

Along with their great hospitality, the Hibernians welcomed the good people of Handcraft Hurleys, who brought in a nice selection of merchandise for hurling players. There were hurling gloves, hurleys of all sizes, boxes of sliotars and a big pile of helmets up for grabs.

Since nearly all the hurling equipment in America came via mail-order from Ireland, Handcraft’s set up offered a  nice opportunity to be able to check out some merchandise before purchase and not have to pay shipping costs to boot.

IN THE GAMES

Since I’m not one of my squad’s premier players, I didn’t see a ton of playing time with the Baltimore team. I managed a few minutes here and there, usually at the end of the games.

For this I am not at all ashamed. I’m an old guy (a crippling 39!) and I’m awfully slow. I’m a fill-in and I’m OK with that that role.

But the trip wasn’t a waste of time for me at all. Since Baltimore had an excess of players, those of us who weren’t going to get much time playing with Baltimore, were offered up to teams that were short of players for the 13-per-side games.

That’s how I got to play for the D.C. Gaels for two games, and where I saw most of my action for the day. In those games I was playing full forward right up next to the opposing team’s goal.

I ran my heart out, swatted at opposing players, dug for the ball and generally had a good, if not tiring, time while wearing the white and blue. But did I score? Nope, not yet. That miracle is still eluding me.

D.C. STRIKES BACK

My longest stint on the field for the Baltimore team is also what hurt us the most. In the weeks prior to the tournament, I had been lightly training for a shot as the goalkeeper, and by the time we were up against D.C. in our final game of the day, I got the call.

And I was dreadful.

I might have been in goal for a total of 10 minutes, and in that time, I let three goals trickle past me. In hurling, getting three goals is gigantic. It’s supposed to be tough, and I guess I didn’t make it tough enough. After that third goal against me, I was pulled from the position, a ruling I agreed with 100 percent.

(I’ll talk more about my goal-tending experience in a later post, because it was a learning experience.)

Luckily for me, the Bohemians rallied for a tie after I put us in the hole. I appreciate that, guys. I was a failure, but you came up big to pull us out of a loss.

The Pittsburgh team had a five-hour drive to the Allentown tournament. They placed fourth in the event.

THE PITTSBURGH GAME

The most amusing point of the day for the Bohemians was when we realized that we were about to play the Pittsburgh team, and their jersey colors were the exact same as ours. Both squads adopted a yellow and black color scheme (Baltimore’s mirrors the Maryland flag and Pittsburgh’s copies the city’s pro-sports team colors).

After some negotiations, we borrowed Allentown’s alternate solid green jerseys and hit the field. Still there weren’t enough jerseys to go around, so some of us had to wear our own shirts. I, for example, had brought two shirts from home — a blue polyester athletic shirt and, luckily, a green t-shirt to wear on the way home. I quickly dawned it and was a proud representative of Team Pitfall! and the Bohemians.

After the game, most of the Bohs said it was a tough adjustment. They kept said they kept thinking about passing to the yellow-and-black squad, instead of the green team.

WHAT’S THE SCORE?

One recurring theme in every game I watched and in every game I played is that no one ever knew for sure what the score was.

If you were on the field, on the sidelines or just watching as a spectator, you were completely unaware of the exact point count since there weren’t any billboards posting the score. Sure, we kind of knew who was winning, but you were never sure by how much.

Instead, we just kept playing and hoping for the best.

But next time, someone needs to bring out a big and highly visible whiteboard to keep us up-to-the-minute. It will be great help to keep up the fighting spirit for those trying to come out of a deficit.

NEWS ACCOUNTS

The tournament brought out at least two news media organizations. The Easton Times Express has coverage here.

A TV station, whom I couldn’t identify and can’t seem to locate a report from, was also filming for some time. (Anyone know who that was?)

Advance coverage came from the South Whitehall Patch, which can be seen here.

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Get the right angle on your hurley

At practice the other day, I had an opportunity to learn a little more about hitting with the hurley, the stick used in the sport of hurling.

In this image taken from a GAA instructional video, you can see the player has adjusted his strike in a "scooping" obtuse angle to create a high-flying ball.

Beyond the simple physics of swinging the bat-like stick at the ball and making it go away, I found myself working the angles of striking as well.

Early in the practice, I was delivering some ground hits to some players as they simulated ball captures during a ground hurling exercise. But as we practiced, a problem soon surfaced. Our practice field is so rutted and patch that ball was bouncing oddly or stopping too short for the exercise to function well. So instead of actually ground-hurling myself, I hit the ball from my hand to give my fellow players a ball worth chasing.

Later on, I was chastised by my coach for not getting the ball skyward enough. In an exact reverse of how I was helping the other players he wanted me to hit with another angle in mind.

Both instances were the result of changing the angles of my swing to help put the ball where I wanted it. Both are useful for hurling and hurling training.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN ANGLE?

When talking about the angle of the hurley, I’m referring to its position at the point where it hits the ball in the zenith of your swing.

Imagine a the most mechanical swing you can:  In this “perfect” swing, the flat of the hurley is absolutely perpendicular to the ground.

What I want you to do is consider adjusting that angle so it’s no longer perpendicular. Make it a conscious choice of the angle you’re choosing.

ACUTE ANGLES

While you typically won’t want to do this in a game, striking the ball with your hurley at an acute angle (less than 90 degrees) will send your ball to the ground. Depending upon the force of your strike, the ball won’t immediately stop dead. Instead, it will bounce down the field.

This type of hit, which I call a “swat” since it hits at a downward angle, can be useful in games occasionally because it’s unexpected. Camogie players, who often do more ground-based hurling, might do this more regularly than hurling players.

More importantly, this is a good hit to use in training because it gives a good erratic bounce that players can then chase down.

OBTUSE ANGLES

Hitting the sliotar (the ball) at an obtuse angle (more than 90 degrees from the ground) is an important thing to master. The angle of the strike, which we can call a “scoop” hit,  depends on the height of the hit you want. Higher hits are better for scoring points and efforts to shuttle the ball far down field. More level hits, a “smack” if I may continue to label them, are good for quick passes down the field or blistering shots at the goal.

The thing to remember here is the extreme scooping  strike is going to create time for your fellow players. The sheer distance the ball must travel in this high-arcing strike is going to give them time to get under the ball to gain control. Conversely,  lower-arcing ball gives players (especially your opponent)  less time to react.

And please note: The obtuse angle I’m talking about here is only a few degrees greater than the 90 degree angle. Likewise, a slight upwards motion on your hit is also important.

BEWARE THE BACKSPIN

Be careful though. Too much of an obtuse angle can backfire on you. Instead of making a solid strike, you might just graze it. Your limp whack will cause it to backspin and only travel a few feet.

Even worse you could just miss the ball completely.

I’ve done both in practice and in games, and it’s plenty embarrassing.

YouTube video on hitting tips: http://youtu.be/l93DPGnN0Uk

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