The Greenville Cup

This weekend, I attended and played in my first hurling tournament. Because teams are few and far between in the U.S., regional teams come together a few times a year to play one another, and Greenville, South Carolina, hosted this weekend’s tournament. It was to be a stormy, nasty weekend, but weather turned out to be much better than expected (mostly overcast or sunny, with one 10-minute downpour late in our second game). Only three teams were able to make it to this one — the host team, the Atlanta team, and Knoxville. The plan was to have each team play each other team and to finish with a championship game between either any teams who won twice or the two overall point leaders in the event of a tie.

There was a tournament in Charleston a couple of months ago, but I didn’t go to that one, mostly because I was still nursing an injured ankle. The ankle is mostly ok now — it remains a little tender and swollen, and I remain afraid I’ll re-injure it, but I’m able to get around on it about as well as before. So this was my first tournament experience. It was, mostly, good.

I’ve been practicing the sport for a few months now with our small team. We typically have 6 – 10 people come out for bi-weekly practices, and we occasionally play matches we optimistically call “city league” games in which we get as many to show up as we can and play tiny-team scrimmages with 20-minute halves. We were unable to field a full team in Charleston and had to borrow players from other teams. This means of course that we tend to be light on substitute players, which in turn means that with two matches back-to-back and the prospect of a championship match, we got pretty tired. We did start with three subs in Greenville, but one guy had to leave early in the second game and another took a stick across the thumb and had to stop playing (the thumb would later turn out to be crushed — fractured in multiple places). Because I’m fairly new and honestly not very good yet, I was (thankfully) a sub, which meant that I played probably about half the time.

We played thirty-minute halves and played two games, so I stood around and occasionally jogged and more occasionally sprinted or jumped for balls for probably an hour or so total spread out over the two games. It was more exertion than I’m used to, and though I thankfully sustained no injuries, I’m a little sore from a greater diversity and intensity of movement than I get even at our more exerting practices.

I did nothing to distinguish myself, really. The game is fairly physical, and I never played any physical sports as a kid; learning to do so in my 40s is a bit of an adjustment, not least of all because I’m the sort by nature who does the whole “oh, after you” routine when another person and I seem to be moving toward the same space. I did get a little physical and shoulder check some players, and one of these efforts led to my winning and scooping the ball out to a teammate who scored, which was neat. I had maybe one other play that was ok, but otherwise, I felt mostly like I was running around without a clue.

My son is playing baseball this year for the first time since a year of tee-ball and a year of coach-pitch several years back. He hasn’t watched a whole lot of baseball, much less played competitively, so he mostly doesn’t know what he’s doing beyond the very basics. His coach will try him out in a new position without warning (there hasn’t been much practice time for instruction), and I have to sort of post mortem his games to help him understand things he didn’t understand about how to play that particular position (e.g. if you’re in left field and a runner is on second with third base open, passed balls are so common in this league that you have to be prepared to back up a botched throw to third to catch a steal). My experience in this tournament was much the same. I’ve watched a handful of pro hurling matches, but it’s so fast-paced and I’m so little familiar with field sport strategy in general and hurling in particular that it’s been hard for me to grok the nuances of how to play the various positions. Add to that the fact that the camera tends to follow the ball, and I had no idea how to play positions that are frequently off camera — a couple of which I played this weekend. So there was an awful lot of time during which I felt like a clueless kid sort of wandering around and expending energy but not actually contributing much. This will get better with experience, of course.

We won our first game, against Greenville, and we ran out of gas against a fit and rested Atlanta team in our second game. Losing two players so that we had less of a bench to sub from didn’t help us any.  Atlanta and Greenville played next, and there was an injury and some unsporting behavior that resulted in the match being called off, with Atlanta retaining possession of the prized Greenville Cup, which they had won last year. To end the day on a better note than a called game, the teams agreed to play a final inter-squad game (teams picked by tossing participating players’ hurls into a pile and then randomly dividing them up to form two teams), and this was pretty fun to watch (having escaped injury so far and wanting to keep that record, and being pretty tired, I merely spectated).

I left the match a little sore but grateful that I hadn’t been injured. Skinned knees and bruises and wrenched joints abound even when there aren’t more serious injuries. While leaping for a ball, I took one really solid hit that grounded me and knocked the wind out of me, but walked away from that unhurt. I also walked away feeling like I want to do some conditioning to get myself in better shape so that I can be a better support to my team members in future matches. I’ve always hated running and sprinting and plyometrics and such, but being a member of a team makes me (for now, while sitting comfortably and not quite ready yet to tie on the shoes and go for a sprint) want to do these bizarre things.

It was a good experience on the whole, and I’m keen to learn more about how to be a better player in games. Doing drills at practice, and even scrimmaging my teammates, is a much different, less intense sort of play.

 

Here I am watching from the sidelines in the game we won.

Between games, I asked for some instruction about how to play a couple of the positions I had subbed in for that had been unfamiliar to me, and a couple of our more experienced players kindly helped me out.

Here I’m getting more instruction. I had been playing a full forward position (or maybe it was full back — I played both) but coming way too far off the goal as play went beyond midfield.

A rare shot of me “in action” — which for a fair bit of my playing time meant standing around waiting for the ball to come to my end of the field and then running in the general direction of the ball only to have somebody else do something useful with it. It’s almost surprising that I’m sore given that so much of my play was me just standing there waiting.

New Hurling Equipment

hurley-unwrappedI do this thing where I develop an interest, pursue it for a little while, and then abandon it. I have an electric guitar in my office, for example. I spent a few months learning some basics but then got tired of being lousy at it and put it aside. A year or two later, I decided maybe the ukulele would be easier, as I’m not very dexterous and there are fewer strings. So now I’ve got a ukulele that I pick up every once in a while and plunk out a few chords on.

Every once in a while, I go on some kind of sporting jag. Several years ago, I played for a short season in a community tennis league, and a year or so after that, I joined a softball league (not a great experience, that). My current semi-obsessive interest is hurling, and today I took delivery of a new hurling stick and some balls.

These shipped over from Ireland. Apparently you can’t really get hurling equipment here in the U.S., which I suppose makes sense given that the reach of the sport in the U.S. is pretty short. I like the old hurley I’ve got, but I wanted to try one with a bigger striking surface, and I wanted to have a spare, as these things do break from time to time. So a little over a week ago, I placed an order for a new hurley and some balls. I was eager to see this stuff come in, and I had checked last night to see if enough time had passed that I should send in an inquiry, but I didn’t contact the company yet. Then, lo and behold, the mail carrier today brought me this bundle via registered mail.

It was very securely wrapped in plastic that it took me a knife and 5 – 10 minutes of focused time to rip away. The hurley is beautiful, a lovely pale plank of ash carved into the standard hurley shape but with a slightly enlarged head (or “bás”). It’s a fair bit lighter weight than my old one even with the bigger head, though whether that’s because the older one just has more moisture in it or something I’m not sure. I can hardly wait to get out there and hit around with this thing. Surely better equipment will make me a better player, right?

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The new hurley on the left and the old on the right, for comparison.

Hurling

A few years ago, a friend invited me to try a sport called hurling, a millennia-old Irish sport wherein you work with a bunch of stick-wielding teammates to get a little ball into a net or over a bar. It’s known as the fastest game on grass (not to be confused with a weed-smoking antelope). My friend grew up near Milwaukee, where there’s a pretty active hurling community. At the time, he seemed to be the only person around Knoxville who knew much about the game. I bought the pictured stick (called a hurley) off of him and we hit around a few times, and that was the end of it.

Some time in the last year or two, he mentioned that there was a group who he’d been playing with locally, composed largely of some Army reserve guys who were using the sport to help keep in shape. I wasn’t really interested at the time and wasn’t in the best of shape myself. Now, it turns out, there’s a Knoxville Gaelic Athletic Club (hurling being but one of several old Irish sports promoted by GACs around the world), and a couple of months ago, I decided to give hurling another try. I had put some effort into getting myself into better shape again but was tired of the same old exercise regimen. I thought playing a sport might be fun. I had had a not great experience with a community softball league a few years ago, so I wasn’t terribly optimistic, but when I contacted the group via Facebook to ask if an old out of shape guy with basically no experience would be way out of place, they were very nice, and I decided to risk leaving my bubble and going out into public to interact with human beings anyway.

And it’s great! The group is very welcoming, and I now very much look forward to training sessions. I’m a little skittish about actually playing in upcoming matches. For one, I’m not that good, and nobody wants to drag a team down. I also simply lack experience — I’ve watched a couple of televised hurling matches by now, but I haven’t absorbed a lot about strategy or game play beyond the basics, I’m bad with game strategy anyway, watching and playing are very different things, and I’m sure to make lots of stupid mistakes on my first few outings. It’s also a fairly physical team sport. You swing sticks around and body check one another, and this is a very different sort of play than I’m accustomed to from sports like softball or tennis in which you’re fundamentally playing the game either solo or as a somewhat isolated cog in a machine. I’m a little afraid of getting hurt, or of hurting somebody. I’m also… middle-aged and increasingly aware of it.

So the jury’s still out for me on playing confidently in any real matches, but I sure enjoy hitting around, and a little scrimmaging is fun, if, for me, also a bit nerve-wracking. I’m also not that in shape, so I wind up out of breath pretty quickly at scrimmage time.

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Here I am lining up a shot that I likely swung and missed at. Photo by Vika Claytor via this post.

A few weeks ago, I injured myself, and not in one of the ways I had sort of expected to (broken collar bone or busted finger were on my short list, and I haven’t ruled these out yet after a few weeks of play). We were training in the rain, on a very muddy field. I had bought some cleats a week or two before, the first cleats I had worn since probably middle school. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I was running with somebody and jockeying to get the ball, or about to be jockeying for it, and then my ankle rolled over really hard. Whether I hit a divot in the turf or whether my cleats dug in while my body kept its sideways momentum I don’t know, but my ankle sort of popped, and it hurt, and I went down and expected to lift my leg and find my foot dangling loosely from the end of it.

Thankfully, nothing was broken, but I had what the doctor classified vaguely as a severe sprain that has had me hobbling around ever since. I’m back to maybe 95% on the ankle for day-to-day use. I can still feel that something’s a little off about it, and it still looks a little funny and swells up if I do much with it, but I’m back to some light training with the team. I did a little scrimmaging yesterday, and it felt good to be back out there. (If you’re not squeamish about injury photos, you can click to see photos of the ankle at one hour after the injury and a few days later.)

If you live near Knoxville (you probably don’t — most of my friends and colleagues live on the internet alongside most of my drive-by readers) and are looking for a fun if not wholly safe sport, consider giving hurling a try. It’s been great fun for me, and I can vouch for the local group as a fun bunch to poc around with.