The dream is over. St Mary's Limavady lost their Rice Cup All Ireland semi-final clash with St Joseph's of Charlestown on Saturday afternoon to bring an end to their protracted and magnificent footballing season.
To lose in a semi-final is always a sickening experience. To be beaten after extra-time is a jab to the solar plexus. And to lose by a single point is nothing but cruel. St Mary's were on the raw end of all of the above.
The bus run home from Ballyshannon to Limavady would probably have been the longest journey of many of these young players lives. They could blame the referee who certainly appeared harsh on St Mary's at times. Four times he blew a Limavady player for over carrying, while St Joseph's equalizing point to rob St Mary's of a single point win came after Thomas Holtan took at least a dozen steps.
But in their heart of hearts the Limavady school will know that they picked the wrong game to produce a well below par performance.
Nine times out of ten St Mary's would have had won this game, and won it at a canter. They held their opponents from Charlestown to a single point in the first half, and when Oisin Hassan slotted home a penalty at the start of the second half, they really should have pushed on and put this game to bed. That they didn't squeeze hard when they had their collective foot on St Joseph's throat will always be a reason for regret with an historic All Ireland final within their grasp.
Wins, and emphatic wins at that, over Aquinas, Coláiste Ailigh, St Aidan's and Carrickmore brought St Mary's to Ballyshannon in great shape and buoyed with all the confidence that beating some of the best schools in the county, the provience and the country instils on any team. And they brought that form to the early stages of this encounter, cantering to a 0-04 to no score lead by the 16th minute.
Star man Oisin Hasson got the ball rolling when his reliable left peg opened the scoring in the 3rd minute. The same player doubled St Mary's lead with a free in the 12th minute, but while Limavady were clearly on top they struggled, very much in the same way toiled against Donegal champions Coláiste Ailigh earlier in the season, to make any real in-roads through the Mayo school's massed defensive ranks.
However, St Mary's still managed to stretch their lead when Paddy O'Kane converted a free from the left, before Oisin Hassan put St Mary's four up soon after. Glack pair Jack McGonigle and Marty McGonigle were prominent early on, raiding forward from defence to attack, while Jamie McLaughlin produced a wonderful steal before deftly flicking the ball from the carpet and attacking.
St Joseph's, with all hands on the deck at the back, rarely threatened but they very nearly scored a goal when Padraig Duffy flicked just wide in the 21st minute. The Mayo side finally scored in the 25th minute when the dangerous Keelan Horkan swivelled and tapped over to leave it 0-4 to O-l.
There would be no further scoring in the half, but St Mary's would rue a late Kyle McGuinness effort when he was set free by McGonigle in the 28th minute only to see his well struck shot blocked by the St Joseph's keeper.
Half-time 0-04 to 0-01
St Mary's received the perfect nerve-settler when Oisin Hassan slotted home a penalty soon after the restart. A foot block from an opposition defender from a Hassan shot gave the referee little option but to award the spot kick which Hassan coolly finished to hand St Mary's a six point lead.
Unfortunately for St Mary's, that action would be their one and only score of the entire half.
By contrast, St Joseph's flourished. Encouraged by their superb defensive showing in the first half, the Charlestown team quickly found their groove and attacked dangerously. They nailed six consecutive scores over the next 25 minutes to eventually pull-the sides and take the game to extra-time.
In truth, it was no more than St Joseph's deserved who emerged from their first half defensive shell to carry the fight to their northern opponents.
The St Mary's express train of attack that had steam rolled over so many opponents in their run to the semi-final, simply ran off the rails. Midfielder Callum Brown found himself running down dead alley ways and being wrapped up by feverish St Joseph tackling. And too many other St Mary's players suffered similar fates. Their performance was littered with so many unforced and uncharacteristic errors.
Indeed, St Joseph's pulled two ahead early in extra time and only a huge Callum Brown point in the 69th minute brought an end to that critical 38 minute score drought. But again St Joseph's pulled away and led by three with a couple of minutes to go.
Far too predictable in their approach play, coach Chrissy McKaigue stationed Marty McGonigle at full forward as a last throw of the dice. St Mary's, to their great credit, finished the game the stronger. A Paddy O'Kane free and a Jamie McLaughlin point left them just one behind deep into extra-time injury time. They showed some serious levels of athleticism and character to fight back when all seemed lost.
And with time all but up and, crucially, free-taker Oisin Hassan already black carded, it was all down to Paddy O'Kane with a last free of the game to see if he could level it for Derry. The young Faughanvale man's effort skewed just wide and that was that. Game over.
They say don't cry that it's over, smile that it happened and this has been a magnificent year for this very talented set of players and their coaches. They fell just short. You don't always get the fairytale ending you deserve in sport. But throughout this campaign and their run to the All Ireland semi-final St Mary's have taken their school and their supporters on a wonderful roller coaster ride, filled with many more highs than lows. The Limavady lads have played some scintillating football and entertained us all royally. They've grown as players, as a team, and as young men.
And that really should be the memory that lingers longest...
St Mary's : Dylan Moore, Daniel O'Kane, Harry McLaughlin, Sean Butcher; Conal McFeely, Conor McGuinness, Patrick O'Kane (0-2f), Martin McGonigie, Callum Brown (0-1), Kyle McGuinness, Oisin Hassan (1-3)(0-1f), Jack McGonigle, Mark Creane, Curtis O'Hara, Jamie McLaughlin (0-1)
Subs : Anthony McGuinness, Manus Quigiey, Ben Deery, Liam McGuinness, Kames Gaile, Daryl Donaghy,Aidan Duddy, Fintan Curley, Kevin Moran