These are heady times for Cregagh Cricket Club. The famous Belfast club, which produced Ireland internationals Frank Fee and Charlie Corry back in the 1950s and won the old First Division league title a couple of times immediately after the Second World War, are back in the spotlight.
This season the 1st XI have won 12 out of 12 in Section Three of the Ulster Bank League to guarantee them promotion and the Under-15 side make history today when they play in their first All-Ireland semi-final against Bready.
Gibson Park Avenue, their only home since the club's formation in 1906, will host today's game (1pm start) and much is likely to depend on the individual performance of Stuart Nelson, their Ireland Under-15 star.
Remarkably, Nelson was the leading run-scorer for the Firsts in Section Two last season but he is not the only young success at Cregagh as chairman Phil Thompson explains.
"We have been a yo-yo team for the last few seasons, too good for Section Three but not good enough to stay in Section Two. Last year we brought a few players in to keep us up but it didn't work out, so we made a conscious decision to give the young guys a go.
"If they won us promotion, that would be great but if not we'll just wait until they are good enough.
"Well, we haven't lost a game and if we make it 13 in a row on Sunday, against PSNI, we will be confirmed as champions.
"As well as Stuartie, we have three others in the NCU Under-15 team, James Hume, Mark Johnston and Adam McCormick who are all regulars in our 1st XI and another 16-year-old, Adam Skelton, has just broken into the team in the last few weeks. He looks a tremendous prospect," says Thompson.
Cregagh won the Graham Cup, the major Under-15 cup tournament in the NCU, back in 1970 but it wasn't until the club's centenary, in 2006, that the club reinvented itself and the youth section took off.
"It started with small numbers but we eventually got enough adults, but mainly youngsters, to field a 3rd XI. We entered an Under-15 team into the league and introduced Under-13s, Under-11 and now have an Under-17 as well.
"Our youth section is now so big that we have appointed a dedicated chairman of the youth section, Graham Watt, so that no stone is left unturned. David McCormick is head of the Academy and Davy Harris looks after the Under-15s and Tony Henry and Graham the Under-13s and U11s.
"This year we have 18 Under-9s as well, so we have had to split the youth training nights. Winning the Graham Cup, I suppose is our reward," adds Thompson.
Cregagh are already working on plans for next year for the 1st XI and the chairman believes the future is bright.
"We are far better prepared, with the strength in depth of young players. Our captain, Graham Hazard, is another who came through our youth system. But we would be confident of staying in Section Two next year," says Thompson.
"The Seconds need a couple of wins to avoid relegation but the Thirds are only four points off the lead and have a chance of going up again.
"If we do that, it will be our third successive promotion since the restructuring of the Junior Leagues."
But it's today's Under-15 final which is the club's focus at the moment.
"We are all looking forward to welcoming Bready. It's a massive achievement and a big occasion, especially as we are at home. Unfortunately we are missing James, who is away with Ulster Rugby. Bready are sure to be strong."
Indeed, it would be a second major success for the North West club in four days, following their Ulster Cup triumph on Sunday and they have an Ireland Under-15 squad player as well in Reece Kelly, while Ross Doherty, grandson of the legendary Ivor, was on stand-by for the winning European Championship squad.
If Bready win they will be at home to Dublin YMCA in the final on Monday, while Cregagh must travel to Claremont Road if they triumph today.
Dominant duo Inst and CIYMS to clash
Thelast two NCU cup finals of the season take place on Saturday with Instonians III facing 2012 winners CIYMS III in the Minor (Lindsay) Cup at Eaton Park and Ballymena IV facing holders Armagh III in a repeat of last year’s Minor Qualifying decider at The Cloughan, in Ballyclare.
Instonians have played only two matches to reach the final — they won the semi-final against Donaghadee II in a bowl-out — but powered past CIYMS IV and Woodvale III by three figure margins, while CI, who have played two extra matches, have been just as convincing with eight wickets victories over Muckamore III, in the semi-final and Armagh II and by 98 runs against Lisburn III.
Their only close game was against Derriaghy III in the second round when they won by 12 runs.
It’s a third successive final for Armagh III, who posted 295 for five in their semi-final win over Donacloney III, while Ballymena IV, who lost last year’s final by 18 runs, defeated Larne II in their last four game, chasing a more modest 164. Armagh won the league game between the teams back in May by 29 runs.
Derriaghy battle to Intermediate glory
Derriaghy II won the Intermediate Cup final last Saturday with a four wickets victory over Woodvale II at Pollock Park, despite Darren O’Neill and Tim Rutherford scoring the only 50s of the game, for the losers.
It left NCU president Billy Boyd with the difficult choice of who to give the man of the match award to and he chose Stuart McAllister for his quickfire 31 which gave Derriaghy the momentum to go on and win the match.
When he was out, the ball after hitting his second six, the Queensway side needed only 15 to win from three overs and Johnny Bell saw them home with six balls to spare, finishing 27 not out.
The innings had got off to an unusual start because Derriaghy had five runs on the board before they faced a ball, penalty runs awarded for persistent running on the wicket
by O’Neill. Indeed, although he was run out going for a second run, the first was taken off him because he ran down the middle of the pitch and the penalty runs awarded to Derriaghy.
Robert Cummins then gave the winners a storming start, scoring 37 of the first 39 runs, with three fours and two sixes but opening partner Dean Ferris went on to finish with 42.
Carrickfergus can write final chapter
It's one cup match after another for Carrickfergus at the minute and for the next two Sundays they will be cup finals.
On Sunday week, they face Downpatrick at Middle Road in the delayed final of the Ulster Shield but this weekend, they are at Downpatrick for the final of the RSA National Cup, with Killyclooney the visitors.
The game is a repeat of the second round game in the Ulster Cup when Carrickfergus totalled 236 for six and won by a comfortable 120 runs, so they will start firm favourites to bring the cup back to the NCU, after Malahide last year followed inaugural winners Muckamore.
Carrickfergus had five wickets but just an over to spare when they reached their victory target of 203 in south Dublin in Sunday's semi-final, against Dundrum while Killyclooney beat Woodvale by 41 runs after the NCU side were set 198 in 46 overs.
It was a particular disappointment to finish on the losing side for the Irwin brothers after Mark took seven wickets and Michael top scored with 56.
Bonds Glen up for Strabane mission
The O’Neill’s Ulster Plate Final is an all North West affair with Bonds Glen II facing Strabane II at Donemana on Sunday.
The Red Caps won a bowl-out in the semi-final to knock out Civil Service North II to give them the favourites’ role against their Qualifying 2 opponents who are in their first cup final.
Strabane were beaten finalists in the Plate in 2012.
The postponed Sam Jeffrey Cup semi-final between Glendermott and St Johnston takes place at the Rectory, also on Sunday, 24 hours after the teams meet in the Championship.
The winners of the cup tie will face Bonds Glen in the final at Eglinton on Saturday week.