The annual Salthill Open in Galway, which serves off this weekend, has become a highlight on the club calendar, with players from all four provinces descending on the city for a high-class tournament which caters for intermediate, Junior A and Junior B singles handballers as well as Masters doubles.
This weekend will mark the fifth instalment of the popular event, the idea for which came about by chance at a club meeting, explains club secretary Nevan McCartin.
“The genesis of this really started as an observation at our club AGM six years ago. We were talking about the upcoming small ball championships and getting some training in for that. A few of us started lamenting about the lack of opportunities to get variety into the type of players we get to train against,” McCartin told GAAHandball.ie.
“We were also talking about how so many players in the Intermediate, Junior and Junior B grades can hit the start of the championship cold and for those it can be a case that its over as soon as it begins.
“Sometimes if you study the names you see getting knocked out in the early stages of the championship and the calibre of player there it would shock you.
“So I guess that was the lightbulb moment where we thought that there was something happening here. Some players weren’t getting the opportunity to really test their wares coming into championship so we just thought we’d have a go at plugging that gap and thankfully its been really well received down the years.”
Nevan's own introduction to the game – both playing and administration – came in a local outdoor court in his home county of Leitrim.
“I’m from a small village in south-east Leitrim called Newtowngore. When I was about eight or nine my Mum got a call from my older cousin who was taking the initiative to get a new club going at the old three-wall 60x30 in the next town over in Carrigallen.
“It started with training every Sunday evening and took off from there. We’d also travel to Drumshanbo to get our 40x20 fix in the middle of the week which was great as well.
“As is the story for so many others, I fell away from handball when in secondary school, and it wasn’t until I was back studying in NUIG that a friend I was living with decided she was going to head down to check out the college handball club and I tagged along and the love affair started again from there!
“I suppose in terms of administration I got involved soon after joining the college club as secretary there, and then did a couple of years giving a hand with the Irish Collegiate Handball Association (ICHA) also.”
When his studies concluded, he threw himself into the local club.
“When I was finished in college and had a clearer idea that my roots were going to be set in Galway I joined up with Salthill Handball Club and shortly after that Pierce Lalor, our club Chairman, asked me to get involved and I’ve been there since, first as PRO and now secretary.
“I saw that there was a small but strong group in the club willing to put the time and effort into rejuvenating the facilities and because of that I was happy to give a hand. Like every handball club and in the country we’re chipping away and looking to develop the club and set down some strong roots to the courts and the game for our members and we’re really proud of what we’ve done in the past five or six years.”
Key to the success of the Salthill Open – which has attracted over 50 players this weekend - has been the dedicated band of volunteers and the support of local handball clubs, he said.
“We’re very lucky in that we have so many hands about that are willing to put in a bit of time and help us with the usual preparation of tournaments, from refereeing to making the sandwiches so the workload is well spread out.
“We’re also lucky in that we have buy-in from our neighbouring clubs in Claregalway and Moycullen who never hesitate in giving us their courts to help us run this off so that really important.
“Thankfully, our sponsor O’Reillys Bar & Grill in Salthill have been there every year we’ve run this event and we’re really lucky that they see the importance and benefit in what we’re trying to achieve with this.”
Handball in general is going very well in county Galway, although McCartin admits there is more to be done in his own club in terms of juvenile development.
“It’s a case of mixed fortunes here at the minute. Among the adult grades handball is ticking along nicely. Our courts are kept busy most nights which is what we want, and we have a really strong cohort of female players down at the club which is absolutely brilliant to see. We’re really lucky on that front.
“Juvenile numbers in the county are doing quite well, but they aren’t where we’d like them to be in the city. It’s obviously a challenge with so many other sports on people’s doorsteps but we are looking to target this coming into the new year, get some interest going in the schools again and take it from there.
“There’s loads of potential so we just need to make sure we can tap into that.”
Nevan and fellow committee member Brendan McDonagh will juggle organising with playing this weekend (“when we had a look at the entries and saw the standard of the players entered we just thought it would be a shame not to. It will be a great opportunity to sharpen the skills against some seriously good players.”) but will also find time to touch base with the entrants to see where they feel the tournament should go from here.
“We’re on our fifth year so it’s a really good time to take stock of what we’ve done to date and see if there is any appetite to bring in some new grades in the future. Our plan is to have a chat with the players over the weekend and find out what they like, and what they’d like to see.
“We’re open to taking this in whatever direction works best for the players. I think we’ve achieved what we set out to do from the start of this project, and that was to establish a tournament and get a footing on the calendar.
“I think we’re at that point now and players have that expectation and anticipation that we’ll run this each year and for us that means an awful lot. I suppose too when you have the likes of players like last year’s finalists Ian McLoughlin and Gavin Coyle coming back year in year out that’s a great sign too.
“It tells us that top quality players are hungry to play, and equally, we’re looking forward to watching on.
“So for as long as people have the desire to come along and test themselves, we’re happy to keep facilitating it! Its as simple as that!”