Part of every Ultimate player’s dream is to reach the pinnacle of the sport – To play Masters Beach. While countries such as the United States, Great Britain and Australia have established teams for the older player reaching their peak years, Ireland has yet to reach that level. Until now.
The 2017 Ireland Men’s Masters is the first team the nation have entered in the division. For a relatively young nation as far as the sport is concerned it’s a big step, and yet it almost didn’t happen.
Eamon Cassells is no stranger to the sand. He was a member of the Ireland Open team in 2011 (WCBU) and 2013 (ECBU) and has played for over ten years. He told us the story of how the team came to fruition:
“We originally put in a bid when the first round came out but we didn’t get in as it was so popular and Ireland had no history of a Masters team. This is the first Ireland Masters team on beach, grass or any surface. So we thought that our chance was gone.
“However when the call went out for a Currier Island team we chanced our arm as the captain, Mark Earley, contacted BULA and asked if there was any chance we could take that spot and luckily we were told yes.”
With this great news, the seed for the first Ireland Masters team had been planted. But there wasn’t much time to prepare:
“There was a mad panic to get the team together, six weeks out from the tournament so it’s been a bit of a rush. It’s a small squad with only eleven of us. But, we are delighted we did get the chance to do it.”
With Ireland’s natural climate of rain, wind and more rain, your typical beach wouldn’t look much, if at all, like Royan’s. However, determined to do all they can prepare for the week, the team was put to action.
“We had weekly practices in Dublin every Sunday but of course because people already had plans by that stage we never had everyone together at the same time. And then we have Cory (Cox) who has come over from San Francisco to play with us, so until we actually got to France most of us had never actually met him in person.”
Thankfully for the team, the squad have plenty of prior knowledge of the game to carry them when needed:
“We have a pretty high level of experience. The majority have played for Ireland before, but only some have played beach at this level.” The team captain, Mark, had also set the wheels in motion for Masters Ultimate in Ireland long before the national team plans had hatched. “We recently started a Masters team called Masterclass Ultimate which is keeping many of team ticking over and giving us high level Irish Ultimate,” Eamon explains.
Since arriving, the team have tried their best to settle in the environment. Most arrived a day early to get a feel of the area and get the sand between their toes before the first pull. But, it seemed no amount of pre-tournament relaxing could get them used to the heat that would come at their faces:
“We’ve found the heat really tough between the air temperature and the sand temperature. We expected it coming in but it was still a shock to the bodies when you actually have to go out and play. We have struggled with it, coming out in games and starting well but fading in the second half.
“When we’re out on the sand, we just have to play. We can’t just stop because it’s hot because we know our opponents won’t.”
Emily Vereker, the sole female in the Men’s Masters division, agrees with Eamon’s sentiments: “First day was a bit of a shock to the system as the conditions were quite tough. Just getting used to the sand, the air and trying to overcome the issue, I suppose.”
While this affected some of their initial results, they know they can’t make excuses, as Emily says: “We’ve had hard games and maybe we should have scored a few more. We’re looking to clean up our offence, be hard on D, just do the basics right.”
Despite the conditions being against them, the squad know that they’re giving it their all, and are achieving a lot in terms of their aims as pioneers of the Masters division in Ireland as Eamon tells us: “At the moment it’s a case of coming here and getting the division going in Ireland and giving incentive for Irish players to continue into their thirties. I can see that being completely different in two or three years. I have no doubt that next time we hit WCBU there’ll be a much stronger Masters team.”
But for the week, the worries of the team are not to the future, but to now and what they can do during the tournament. For Emily, a lot of the joy comes from the chance of playing the best: ““It’s really great playing these top teams, the USA are an amazing team and we did really well against them considering their experience levels and what they’ve achieved.”
Currently, Ireland sit on two wins for the campaign, after their first ever victory coming from a tight affair with India, and on a personal level, Emily has enjoyed her foray into the Men’s division:
“Being the only female on a open team is an experience. It’s interesting as sometimes you don’t know how you’re going to be marked, so you have to think: ‘How can I shake this guy off, how should I cut and take advantage?’
“So we’ve had to shake things up sometimes, maybe have me mark a handler while on D line. But, in fairness because it’s beach it’s a different type of cutting so I find it easier in some ways to get free on O. But I’ve been pretty happy y’know? You certainly get some interesting looks when the other team sees you coming on to the line but it’s been good.”
Emily been one of the biggest performers on the team so far, notching up three goals and one assist. No matter what the match up she has been able to work hard and play her role on the team, making her a valuable asset.
She puts her ability to hang with the best in the division down to the fact that despite being the oldest on the team at 40 years old, she still maintains an active playing career at club level. “For me I just have to keep active and maintain a good standard of fitness as Ultimate really isn’t fun when you’re unfit and can’t keep up at that level and I still feel that there’s a few more years left in me. I’m really proud to represent the first Ireland Masters team and get the chance to play at this level.
“I’ve been playing with the Masterclass club at home a little bit so the past year I’ve played a lot of open and I feel for a female it’s a great test and I think the stronger opposition helps you learn new things and push you.”
Ireland play Singapore on Thursday to keep their chances of a top 10 finish alive. The Boys (and Girl) in Green already bested the Asian side on Wednesday in a spirited encounter 11-7 so will do everything in their power to ensure a repeat performance. But, whatever the result, Earley’s Army (as I’ve just decided to dub them) will be sure of three things: Great spirit, great fight and great craic.
By Aidan Kelly.