Niamh McIvor stole the show as Belfast Royal Academy reached their first Belfast Telegraph Ulster Senior Cup final for 46 years with a dramatic 5-4 shoot-out win over the holders Banbridge Academy after a scoreless draw at Stormont on Wednesday.
BRA’s opponents in the March 4 decider at Lisnagarvey will be Friends’ School Lisburn, who defeated Omagh Academy 2-0 in the second semi-final.
McIvor showed nerves of steel to score two of the ice hockey style one-on-ones in which strikers have eight seconds to beat the keeper.
The Pegasus and Ireland Under-18 star made it an unusual hat-trick by converting a penalty stroke in the shoot-out after Bann keeper Rebecca Spence had fouled Emma Uprichard in the first of the run-ins.
It had looked like Uprichard would step up and take the stroke, but McIvor assumed the responsibility and converted from the spot.
The first phase had ended 4-4 and so it went to sudden death and, after McIvor had expertly beaten Spence, the Academy missed their next effort and BRA were into their first final since 1974.
The match itself won’t live long in the memory as both sides cancelled each other out in a dour struggle with very few goal scoring chances at either end.
McIvor said: “It’s fantastic to be in the final after such a long time but it’s going to be tough against a very good Friends’ side who have a lot of great young players.
“I was really nervous in the shoot-out but I just tried to stay calm and, with the stroke, Rebecca is such a good keeper so I knew I had to put it wide of her to score, and fortunately I managed to do that.
“I have taken run-ins against her with the Irish Under-18s, so I sort of knew a bit about what I had to do in the one-on-ones, but taking them in practice is very different from in a competitive game as it’s hard to replicate the pressure.”
BRA captain Julia Uprichard, who was also on target in the shoot-out, was naturally delighted at the prospect of next month’s final after a hard fought contest and that nailbiting finale.
She said: “Throughout the match, I felt we felt we had the upper hand — we had more pressure but just couldn’t score.
“However, when Bann had counter attacks, they looked dangerous and that was a worry for us, but we knew we could do it and just had to keep going.
“The shoot-out was nerve wracking but we knew Niamh was a class act, we had prepared very hard for the possibility of a shoot-out.
“Friends’ are always tough to beat and they have fast, attacking players, but it means everything to the girls to be in the final and we will give it everything we’ve got.”
The second semi-final was a much more entertaining affair with more goal mouth action in the first 10 minutes than in the entire 60 that had gone before.
Friends’ started brightly, forcing three penalty corners early on, and team captain Rachel Geddis hammered in the third award which had been set up by a brilliant run by Ella Brown, who drew a foul after displaying some great camogie-style skills.
Omagh had a chance to equalise in the 20th minute from their first attack when Mia Nethery’s snap shot flew narrowly over the crossbar.
Kate Erskine then fired wide from a set-piece at the other end and Omagh’s Lauren Armstrong had a penalty corner blocked before the break.
The Tyrone side had two more corners that came to nothing before Friends’ added the insurance goal in the 47th minute.
Once again, Ireland Under-16 star Brown was involved in the build-up, skilfully driving along the baseline after a quickly-taken free to set up Sophie Kidd (left), who stabbed the ball home from close-range to seal the deal, although Omagh never gave up.
“It was never comfortable at one-nil but it was good to get that early goal to calm any nerves,” said Geddis.
“Omagh fought really hard and caused us some problems, and it was only when we got our second that we felt we had a good chance of making it into the final.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling, and we have a week off now with half-term coming up and then it will be back down to hard work again to prepare for the final against a very good BRA side.”