The forecast loomed with a chance of rain all week, calling for a high of 75F. 3200 feet above sea level, Missoula was teetering between rain-soaked boots and perfect hurling weather. When the fifth annual National Collegiate Hurling Championships began in Montana, it was cloudy but dry. The teams marched onto the field to the sound of bagpipes and stood shoulder to shoulder while four men greeted the games and the crowd with the Star Spangled Banner and Amhrán na bhFiann. With the players and the clouds holding their breath, the games were set to begin.
There was a swarm of anticipation coming into this years tournament, with talk of how large the crowd would be and the number of teams that would show up. This year produced six hurling teams from the University of Montana, the University of Connecticut, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, and a combined squad from Purdue University and Indiana University. There were over seventy athletes competing to represent their team and university and four hundred spectators in the stands watching Ireland’s national sport played on American soil. Without a doubt, this was one of the best national championships to date.
This year used a double elimination bracket which saw eight matches in the first day to set up the shield championship tournament and the national championship on Sunday. After the first day of action, Berkeley and Stanford would play to qualify to for a match against Montana for the national championship while the four remaining teams would compete to be crowned the shield champions. With a Stanford win at 10, IU/PU was set to play UConn in the first shield qualifier. In a back and forth affair, IU/PU slipped past UConn with a score of 20-17. at 12:30, Berkeley took on Pittsburgh. With Berkeley’s spell of exhaustion and Pittsburgh’s larger depth, Pittsburgh clawed their way into the Shield Championship. So the games were now set. IU/PU were to play Pittsburgh at 2:00 for the Shield Championship and Stanford was to square off against Montana at 3:30 to see who would be crowned the National Champions.
Both IU/PU and Pittsburgh were teams representing the Midwest. They had squared off not only during the school year, but also the day before with IU/PU taking the win 14-13 on a last second, blocked penalty shot by the IU/PU goalie. The IU/PU team shot out of the gates and went into the half with the lead. But the resilience of Pittsburgh shone threw with back to back goals in the second half and another one point game. This time, however, the Pittsburgh Panthers came out the victors by a score of 17-18 and again went home with the title of Shield Champions.
Now it was time for the National Championship. A peak at the crowd was all you needed to know that this was the main event. 400 people, mainly fans of the University of Montana, sat with bated breath and anxious hearts for the beginning of the show. With a clash, the game began and the crowd roared. A Montana Grizzlies cheer exploded from the stands every time the Griz scored a goal. A faint but steady “trees” chant could be heard from pockets around the stadium and it was evident that Stanford did not travel alone. Stanford kept the game close through most of the first half, but Montana slowly began to pull away. By half time, Stanford were already down 14 points. Stanford came out with a bang in the second half, but could not sustain the momentum. Montana rolled into their second straight national championship with a score of 27-10. Beaten but not broken, Stanford exerted itself as a serious force to be reckoned with in the coming years. One of the original four clubs, Stanford will be a team that will undoubtedly need to be followed in the future of collegiate hurling.
This year’s tournament has proven one thing, hurling is here to stay. Show it to any fan of any other sport and you instantly recruit another follower. 70 athletes descended upon Missoula, a location that is not easy to reach, to compete in this years games. 400 spectators warmed the stands and echoed across the mountainside. If you haven’t been paying attention, now is the time to listen. If you haven’t been watching, now is the time to see. If you have yet to attend a national championship, check back next Memorial Day weekend for two intense days of hurling and gaelic football.