Students making the grade at the top level

Queen's  Kate Morris
Queen's Kate Morris

THREE members of Queen’s University ladies hockey club have found the perfect way to banish those winter blues as they head for warmer climes later this week.

Hannah McMillan, Katie Morris and Claire Allison have been selected to represent the Irish Universities at a prestigious tournament in Barcelona.

They will be taking part in the Tourneo de Reyes - roughly translated as the tournament of kings - and they will have three matches over the course of the weekend.

The competition is organsed by the opulent Real Polo Club de Barcelona which boasts state-of-the-art facilities and several hockey pitches along with a polo field which is used by the rich and famous.

It’s an indication of the growing stature of university hockey here that three Queen’s players have made the cut and gone are the days when the likes of the south Belfast outfit and Jordanstown, now under the guise of the Ulster Elks, were mere cannon fodder for bigger clubs.

Now, in fact, they are among the bigger guns themselves as both teams play in the Ulster Premier League although that wasn’t always the case.

It wasn’t so long ago that the University of Ulster, as they were then known, were the proverbial whipping girls of Ulster women’s hockey.

They found promotion to the top flight as a poison chalice as they were regularly on the wrong end of some humiliating double figure defeats. Unsurprisingly they went straight back down to the second tier having shipped more than 100 goals in their Premier League programme.

But those days are now over, thankfully for UU and their name change to brand the university sport emblem coincided with much more successful times.

The University of Ulster part-funded scholarships for overseas students and after a judicious recruitment programme the Elks were able to sign some big name players from different continents including America, Asia and Australasia.

Now the wheel has turned full circle as far as achievement - or lack of it in the past more appropriately - is concerned after an appearance in an Ulster Shield final a few years back.

Now the Elks are looking forward to taking part in the Irish Hockey League for the first time after finishing fourth in the Premier League table last season.

Queen’s are relative newcomers to top flight hockey as this is only their third season at Premiership level but they, too, have shown improvement year on year.

They finished eighth in their first season, seventh and then sixth last time around and now they sit proudly at the top of the table having already drawn with the two teams that have dominated women’s hockey here for more than a decade, namely Pegasus and Ballymoney.

Obviously if they continue to show incremental improvement a place in next season’s IHL could be on the horizon but their success has not come without a lot of hard work.

The university invested millions of pounds in improving facilities both at the PE Centre on the Ormeau Embankment and at Upper Malone or the Dub as it is commonly known.

The new facilities include a strength and conditioning suite on site inside the well appointed club house where the girls regularly are put through their paces.

Head Coach Simon Bell and technical coach Graham Quincey are among the best in the business and they have managed to keep their best players and even add to their squad this season.

Securing the services of students to play for the university sides rather than clubs has been a problem in the past and there are many arguments in favour of playing for Queen’s or the Elks.

Both boast terrific facilities but there is also the appeal of playing and socialising with girls of around the same age along with sports bursaries and grants provided by the authorities. Unlike the University of Ulster, Queen’s is a ‘closed’ club which involves students or those who recently were students and they pulled off a major coup when they signed Rachel Mulligan this season.

She had been at Armagh but joined Queen’s for some of the reasons outlined and her capture has reaped dividends as she has been scoring goals for fun in the first half of the league campaign.

Mulligan took part in the annual Irish Intervarsities tournament last year and the opportunity to compete in such events and at Irish representative level is another attraction that might make you consider playing for your university.

Just ask the three Queen’s players who this week will be swapping the sun tan lotion for the winter woolies !