by Anna Creech
Raven and I met for coffee for our first date. She was brilliant, funny, and cute, and I wish we could have sat and talked longer, but she was late for a skills practice with some new recruits in this odd little team sport she’d joined the year earlier. So, we made plans to meet up again later that week. Things went well from there, and eventually I’d learn that this odd little team sport is a 400 year old game from Ireland called hurling (or camogie for the women’s only variation).
To keep some skills up over the winter, we had been visiting a nearby park with a racquetball enclosure that was perfect for practicing hitting and catching the ball, called a sliotar. My sports background is mainly slow-pitch softball and sandlot baseball, so I have some skill with hitting and catching, but that translated only but so much to hurling.
The first hurdle to learning the skills to play hurling is picking up the sliotar. You have to pick it up with the hurl before you can transfer it to your hand. There are several methods for doing this, but the basic idea is to angle the hurl so that the thinner edge catches the underside of the sliotar and scoops it off the ground. Here’s a brief demonstration video of one method (the easier one, IMHO):
Now that you have the sliotar in hand, there are a couple of ways to transfer it to a teammate or try to score. One is to pass it by hand, or hand pass. However, unlike with softball or baseball, you can’t just throw it. You have to toss it up slightly and then bat it with your hand to your target.
Another way is to strike the sliotar with the hurl, which can be done for passing any distance from short to long, depending on the situation. To do that, from a soft/baseball perspective, you have to pitch to yourself. Getting the timing and placement of my pitches and swings right took me most of the winter and spring months. And, I was really only working on my dominant side. Recently I’ve started practicing more on my non-dominant side, because there are many in-game situations where you need that flexibility.
You can also kick the sliotar or hit it on the ground, which happens more often in our scrimmages than I would have expected.
Receiving a hand pass or strike takes some practice as well, but also a lot of mental fortitude for those of us not used to bare-handed catches. I’m frequently amazed by how seemingly effortlessly and painlessly more experienced players will catch a strike. A sliotar hit off a hurl can travel at speeds ranging from 50-90 mph (80-150 kph).
Lastly, you can hold the sliotar in hand and take up to four steps, but after that point, you can only bounce or balance it on your hurl. So, another skill I have been working on is balancing the sliotar on the hurl while moving. I’ve managed to keep it on while weaving around cones at a brisk walk so far. I consider that a success, given how long I’ve been practicing.
As the summer progressed, I started going to the field where the camogie team practiced (socially distanced) one night a week. I wasn’t yet ready to try my new skills with actual players (besides Raven) yet, so I took that time to walk/jog the track around the field. After a while, I would help out during practice by shagging the balls they hit at the goal and tossing them back to the coach to save them time and give me some softball fielding practice. Then one day, the coach asked me if I was going to do the whole practice with them, and that was that.
What I wasn’t quite prepared for was the running. So much running. Our camogie practice warm ups begin with a lap around the football field (we use those for practice/games because the dimensions and goals are close enough, and there aren’t hurling fields in my city), followed by side steps across the width and back. Then it’s drills that focus on specific in-game skills, but still so much more sustained movement than my softball body is used to.
The competitive season for the mid-Atlantic teams was canceled this year due to COVID-19, as you might expect, but we’ve had a few informal scrimmages against a nearby team. I didn’t feel like I was ready for an actual game with rules and performance under pressure, so I focused more on attending practices. I would be at the scrimmages to cheer on my girlfriend and teammates, though.
Then in late summer, we were at a scrimmage, and they were trying to have a camogie (women’s only) match without pulling in substitutes from the men’s teams, but we were short one player. Our team captain turned to me and indicated I could fill in as goalie. I was not dressed to play nor prepared to play, but she continued to insist that I would play. Finally, she said in her lovely Irish lilt, “If you didn’t want to play, you should have stayed in the car.” Shortly thereafter I found myself nervously guarding a goal that was much, much too large for me to keep a very small ball from repeatedly going in.
I’ve now made it my aim to learn how to keep goal. It gives me more focus in my practice sessions. Plus, the goalkeeper doesn’t have to run all that much.
Anna Creech is the Head of Resource Acquisition and Delivery at the University of Richmond, which is a fancy way of saying she’s in charge of the department that buys all the (library) things. In her spare time (mainly pre-COVID), she plays recreational softball and sandlot baseball, lifts weights, manages the inflow of new music at a community radio station, and sings in two women’s choruses.