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The Irish Nationals 13&U grade is the first time that we properly get to catch a glimpse of potential handball champions of the future. There's no guarantee that the winners of the boys and girls 13&U grades in 2024 will follow through with their success at a higher level but history shows they're never far away when they reach U16, minor and even senior level.

For example, five of the leading female players in Ireland today have collected the Irish nationals title at 13&U on their journey through the ranks: Catriona Casey (2006), Aishling O'Keefe (2007), Martina McMahon (2008), Cianna Ni Churraoin (2009) and Fiona Tully (2011). In more recent years, the 13&U title winners list has included Kyle Jordan, Mark Doyle, Jodie Keeling, Emma Kinane, Clodagh Munroe, Mairead Fox and Niamh Heffernan, all of whom have gone on to make a notable impact at an older level.

For many of the current young players in 2024, this is a first opportunity to test themselves on the national stage against the best players in their age group throughout Ireland, in an official GAA handball event rather than a tournament. The nationals comes second only to the All Ireland championships on the calendar, so there's more at stake than these players are normally used to. This year's crop of 13&U stars looks very promising and the boys and girls 40x20 nationals this coming weekend will showcase the emerging talent that the sport has in the younger sections. It makes for brilliant excitement and wonderful viewing and there's no doubt that bringing these talented youngsters to Croke Park only adds to the occasion. Trying to predict who'll come through to lift the 13&U titles on Sunday evening is a difficult task but let's take a look at the contenders...

13&U Boys Preview...

There are some exciting talents to watch out for in the 13&U boys grade this coming weekend and top of the list is number one seed, Wexford's Charlie Roche. Charlie is a son of popular Wexford player and coach John Roche and already he's making a name for himself in national handball circles with his exquisite technique. Charlie's two handed skills and his ability to pass and kill with ease are capable of lighting up any match and there will be great anticipation when he plays this weekend. Despite his prodigious talent, there's no guarantee he will win the competition outright and he certainly can't look any further than his quarter final joust with Monaghan's Odhran McMeel who's also been catching eye with his progress in recent times. Odhran was the Ulster U13 singles champion last year and will be a strong contender for U14 championship honours in 2024. He will give Charlie a great contest and the outright winner could easily be produced by this quarter final tie. 

However the winner of that one will have to go straight into another tough examination against Galway's Learai O Gradaigh or Cork's Jack Hennessy. This quarterfinal clash could be an absolute cracker between two left handers who've already developed significant power in their game and will have their sights set on going all the way. They met as recently as last weekend in the final of the 'Clare Challenge' with the Galway lad emerging victorious but the Croke Park rematch could go either way, and it may depend on who can get their power serve to click best in the glass showcourt.

The bottom half of the draw also throws up contenders and the favourite to emerge from this quartet to reach the final is the number 2 seed, Kilkenny's Shane Doyle. Shane arguably boasts the best piece of form going into this weekend as he won the Liscarrol Tournament at Christmas which featured most of his main rivals for the Irish Nationals title. Shane is a fine prospect and certainly knows how to kill the ball when the chance arises. His attacking instinct, along with the experience built up from last year's nationals and Kilkenny's team of six All Ireland win, means he'll not be easily stopped in Croke Park this weekend. However he'll need to be wary of the threat posed by Clare's Charlie Collins who is also a tidy player and reached the 13&U plate final at the nationals last year when he was very young.

Whoever comes through the Doyle v Collins battle will be facing a Loughmacrory opponent in the semi final, regardless of who prevails in the meeting of Michéal McCrystal and Owen Kelly. These two Tyrone lads train together and it will be an unusual experience to find themselves crossing swords in Croke Park in a national title eliminator. Michéal is a silky player with the ability to serve and kill almost effortlessly while Owen is a fast improving talent who also likes to attack and he displayed top form in the qualifiers when seeing off highly regarded Wexford player Thomas O'Brien. There will be some buzz among the Loughmacrory contingent when Michéal and Owen go head to head with a national semi final at stake.

So with two Tyrone players and representatives from Wexford, Galway, Monaghan, Kilkenny, Cork and Clare featuring in the 13&U boys quarter finals, there is a tremendous spread from around the country which is so pleasing to see. These eight players are the last survivors from an original field of 68 players and they've all come through three tussles already to reach the finals weekend, which is no mean feat in itself. It all adds up to an intriguing race for the Boys 13&U Irish nationals crown.

13&U Boys 

QF 1: Charlie Roche (Castlebridge) vs Ordhan Mc Meel (St.Mellans)

QF 2: Jack Hennessy (Liscarroll) vs Learaí O Gradaigh (Mícheál Breathnach)

QF 3: Micheál McCrystal (Loughmacrory) vs Owen Kelly (Loughmacrory)

QF 4: Charlie Collins (Tuamgraney) vs Shane Doyle (Windgap)

Girls 13&U Preview...

This will be every bit as interesting and competitive as the boys division judging by results to date and it will be exciting to see if a new female underage star will be born this weekend in the Girls 13&U nationals event. This year there are two Kilkenny players featuring in the last eight along with one representative from Cork, Clare, Wexford, Dublin, Tipperary and Tyrone.

The top contender for honours has to be Kilkenny's Caoilinn Dowling who's been enjoying plenty of success on the tournament circuit in recent times and to top it off she lifted the She's Ace title in Croke Park two weeks ago. Caoilinn has also collected winners trophies from the Tim Healy Tournament in Liscarrol and the Clare Challenge in recent weeks and was runner up in the 13&U plate at last year's nationals. She is certainly the player to beat this weekend but the other seven quarter finalists are all capable of a big showing.

Grace Murphy is another major contender and her success in the Golden Gloves tournament in Belfast shows what she's capable of. Grace also reached the final of the Liscarrol tournament and has been catching the eye with her promising performances in Munster and in various tournaments over the last year. Tipperary's Molly Joyce and Clare's Juliet Moroney complete the Munster challenge and these two girls have also been showing great potential in their performances to date. Molly has been shining in a number of tournaments, including the Claregalway juvenile event which she won in December.

Leinster has four girls in the running for the 13&U title and if Caoilinn Dowling isn't the one to go all the way, it could be her county colleague Rachel Kennedy, Dublin's Ciara O'Reilly or Wexford's Angel Cronin Kenny. Angel and Ciara are the last two winners of the Leinster U12 singles title and are ready for a crack at this nationals title, while Rachel will be back in Croke Park for the second weekend in a row following her Gael Linn experience last Sunday.

The Ulster flag bearer in this event is Tyrone's Emma Conway who has shown a lot of natural ability so far and has been accumulating valuable experience. Emma was the Ulster U13 singles champion last year and the All Ireland division one feile champion with her club Greencastle in 40x20 and 60x30 and she's still got another year at 13&U.

Overall this looks like an exciting grade with all eight quarter finalists very much in the running and and all have the potential to progress on to bigger things.

13&U Girls 

QF 1: Grace Murphy (Ballydesmond) vs Ciara O'Reilly (St.Brigids)

QF 2: Rachel Kennedy (Windgap) vs Angel Cronin Kenny (Coolgreaney)

QF 3: Emma Conway (Greencastle) vs Juliet Moroney (Kilkishen)

QF 4: Molly Joyce (Ballina) vs Caoilinn Dowling (Clogh)