Strong performances from Irelands youngsters in Zagreb

The 59th European Youth Championships has ended for the Irish in Zagreb, Croatia, and keeping with the trend of recent times, there was progress for all to see following a string of impressive performances from the three Irish teams on show. 

Gone are the days where Irish teams are scrapping for a solitary win in the bottom sections of Europes elite competition as this current generation continue to impress and challenge all in front of them. All three teams aquitted themselves excepionally well in Zagreb, with many of the group still eligible to compete in the same categories next time around.

Due to the ruthless format of the EYC, a fast start is crucial as the finishing positions in the initial group stage will determine which section you will end up in as the final places are decided later in the tournament.

Junior Girls – (Katie McGlone, Mia O’Rahilly Egan, Chloe O’Halloran & Rebecca Finn) Finishing Position – 33rd

The Girls had as tough a group as you could find at this years event, as they were drawn with Portugal, Norway and Georgia. 

First up was Portugal, who proved that bit too strong as a whole with the girls losing 3-1. There were positives to take here though, particularly the performance of Rebecca Finn who played an excellent match to win at the number 3 position.

Next was the familiar sight of the Norweigan team, with whom the team practiced with in preparation for the event. Despite going in as big underdogs, the girls played a great match, losing narrowly 3-1. Katie won against Nora Nillson at the number 3 position, while both Rebecca and Mia pushed the Norway number 1 Ilka Doval to the brink, with Rebecca losing 9-11 in the 5th and Mia by a narrow 3-1 score. To put this performance in context, the same Norway team went on to finish 13th in the Junior Girls event!

The girls finished the group on a high, beating Georgia 3-1. Katie played a key role here, winning 2 singles which included a great match against a strong number 1 (who had taken two wins against Portugal), while Mia added the all important point in the middle match. 

29-38 play-offs

The play-offs started for the girls with a great win over a strong Israel team. This was an excellent team win, with Katie and Mia taking one win apiece before Rebecca won at 2-2 in an epic contest to secure a 3-2 victory. 

The girls kept up their good form with a more straight forward win, as they overcame Latvia 3-1. Again, Katie won her 2 singles and Chloe added the 3rd to seal the win. The next day the girls faced the big challenge of Greece, aiming for their 4th straight win and knowing that a victory would keep their hopes of a top 30 finish alive. Unfortunately though, it wasn’t to be as Greece won the tight sets when it mattered most to run out 3-1 winners. There were chances here however, as Mia led 2-1 in the number 3 match while Katie also lost a tight 3-1 to the Greek number 1. 

Despite the disappointment, the girls bounced back with a big win over Switzerland, which really was an outstanding result. Again, the in-form Katie took 2 wins here with Rebecca adding the 3rd point with a breath-taking duece in the 5th success over the Swiss number 1. 

Unfortunately for the girls, this was to be their last win, as they lost their final play-off match to Bosnia 3-1 to end up in 33rd position. Like many of the matches that didn’t go our way, it did not slip away without a close fight. Rebecca was on the wrong end of a 3-2 scoreline (after winning the 4th set 11-0!) while Mia lost out to the Bosnian number 1 in 4 sets, with all ends being settled in deuce. 

Overall, the girls showed huge quality over the course of the tournament, winning 4 and losing 4 team matches. With 3 of the 4 girls still eligible for at least 2 more years, the future is bright in this category.

Junior Boys – (Zak Wilson, Alexander Gillen, Charlie Fitzgerald & Dylan Grace) Finishing Position – 28th

The boys were drawn to face Denmark, Norway and Malta. With Denmark being one of the outstanding teams in the tournament and Malta being relative minnows at this level, we knew that the opening group match against Norway was massive.

In an excellent match made up of 5 tight contests, the boys battled through to overcome the fancied Norweigans by a 3-2 scoreline, with the wins coming from Zak (2) and Alexander (1). This was an outstanding win for the boys and went a long way to ensuring that we would play off for positions 17-28, something that hasn’t been achieved by any Irish Junior team since 2002.

Later the boys faced off against the outstanding team in the group in Denmark and despite a strong performance by Charlie at number 3 (losing close 1-3) it wasn’t to be as we lost 3-0.

In the final match of the group the boys played Malta knowing a win would guarantee a place in 17-28. They duly delivered, taking the match 3-0 with wins from Zak, Sasha and Charlie.

17-28 play-offs

The playoffs started for the boys with a group of three; Ireland, Sweden and Lithuania.

First up we faced the might of Sweden (another first for any Irish team in recent times!). Both Zak and Sasha had big chances in taking scalps here. Zak lost in 5 tight sets to Vilmer Georggson and Sasha lost a close 3-1 to an in form Per Sandstrom. Dylan Grace faced a massive challenge here as he came up against an on fire Emil Bergstrom who was just too strong.

The boys then played Lithuania knowing a win would see them reach further heights and play off for 21-24 while a loss would see us play for 25-28. Again, this was always going to be a tough one as Lithuania boast three top level players in their ranks. Again, the boys put up a stern resistance but couldn’t quite get over the line. Zak had match points in the 5th to take the first match against last years European Cadet number 4 Merdadas Stankevics while Sasha led 2-1 and 7-4 against number 2, Lesiv, before losing out in the 5th. Charlie then couldn’t quite get to grips with the speed of number 3, Skirmantas as he won 3-0. Overall this felt like one that got away as the boys showed that they were well capable of reversing this result.

In the 25-28, the opponents didn’t get much easier. First we played Israel, who had narrowly lost 3-2 to England the previous day. Again though, the boys had their chances, particularly Sasha, who played a high level before losing in 5 sets. Unfortunately the boys couldn’t quite get the win they craved when they played their final match against Ukraine, going down 3-0. Again, there were chances as Zak lost out in 5 sets but couldn’t manage to get the win.

This meant that the boys would finish in 28th position, a great achievement given that no other Irish team has reached these heights at the EYC in recent years. Ironically, the big win against Norway meant a tougher end to the tournament for the boys. However, this is the level we continue to strive for and these players are a great example of some of the progress made by Irish teams in recent years.

Cadet Boys – (Owen Cathcart & Thomas Joyce) Finishing Position – 33rd 

Despite being dealt the blow of losing Jonatan McDonald through injury, the Cadet Boys team of Owen and Thomas showed an incredible attitude over the course of the event as a result, saw clear improvements as the days went by in Zagreb. 

They opened their campaign with a 3-2 loss to Slovenia and this was followed with defeats to strong opposition in the Netherlands and Ukraine (who reached the last 16). If ever a player was thrown into the deep end at a major championship, Thomas Joyce now knows how it feels! However despite his tender age of just 12 years, he continued to fight and learn from the experience of his team-mate and consequently improved with every match. 

29- 40 play-offs

The play-offs started for the boys with a match against Bulgaria. Owen won his 2 singles and despite an eventual 3-2 defeat, Thomas played a really high level in both the doubles and in the pressure cooker of 2-2, where he narrowly lost 11-8 in the 5th – very impressive for a player born 2004.

The boys then got off to winning ways as next up they defeated Kovoso by a 3-0 scoreline, with Thomas fighting hard again to win in 5 sets. They then kept the momentum going, as two wins from Owen and a doubles win with the rejuvenated Thomas earned them a 3-1 win over Slovakia – a fantastic win against a really strong Table Tennis nation!

This meant the boys would finish with a play-off match for 33rd place. Fittingly, they would face their conquerors of the group stage, Slovenia, and sure enough the boys kept with their new found form and exceptional doubles play to get their revenge and secure a 3-1 win. Again, Owen did the damage with 2 singles wins but a great doubles performance was the decisive factor. Thomas also had big chances in his singles rubber, losing 12-10 in the 5th, having played what was without doubt his best match of the event. 

Overall, the boys can be very proud of how they fared over the course of the tournament. With Owen winning 10/12 singles matches and young Thomas showing such promise over the course of the week, it is an exciting time for the Cadet category, particularly when you consider the other up and coming players at home.

Individuals Events

Owen Cathcart was Irelands sole representative as the tournament reached the individual competitions. In the singles, Owens seeding meant that he would avoid playing a preliminary match and thus start in round 1. Here he faced a tough challenge in the form of a Greek player who had shown impressive form in the team event, winning against Dutch number 1 and European top 20 player Roel Bogie. 

Owen didn’t falter though, as he played his best match of the entire tournament to advance following a 4-0 win. 

In the Last 64 he faced another tough match in the shape of Czech player Tomas Martinko. Unfortunatley Owen was on the wrong end of an agonising defeat here as he went down 16-14 in the deciding 7th set. He rallyed hard throughout, recovering from 3-1 down to level at 3-3. Again, Owen showed his battling qualities to save match points at 7-10 and despite having chances of his own in the deuce, it wasn’t to be in the end. Hard luck but a great experience nonetheless.

In the boys doubles, Owen and his partner Borgar Haug (NOR) lost out to Germanys top pair Stumper and Fadeev in 3 sets.

In the Mixed Doubles, Owen and partner Sinkarova (SVK) overcame a strong Serbian duo 3-1 in the opening round, however their run would end in round 2 as they lost in 5 tight sets to Turkish duo Tok/Kocal.