20 UNDER 20: The next generation of West Cork sports stars have the X Factor

February 18th, 2020 1:55 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

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Sports editor KIERAN McCARTHY profiles 20 talented teens from West Cork who are already making their mark at local, national and international levels, and ensuring that the future of West Cork sport is in very safe hands


Faye Aherne

GAA | Kinsale | Age: 17

It’s hard to believe that Faye is still eligible for minor this year because she seems to have been around for years. Rewind back to Kinsale’s rise through the junior and intermediate ranks, and she was there, starting in their attack and racking up county and Munster club medals. She’s still only 17 but has already packed a lot in, representing Cork at U14, U16 and minor, and she was part of the 2019 All-Ireland winning Cork minor football team, starting in the final against Monaghan and scoring 1-0.

Fiercely determined and not afraid of hard work, Faye’s role as wing forward last year involved her tracking back as an extra defender and then getting back up to the pitch to be part of the counterattack – and she excelled. She’s a superb kick passer, too. Involved with the Cork minors again this year, her experience will be important. Recently, Faye was a part of the Munster football squad that won the post-primary schools’ interprovincial title and she is on the Kinsale Community School team, along with Fiona Keating, that won the Munster senior football C title and now go forward to the All-Ireland series. It’s already shaping up as a busy year for the Leaving Cert student, who is also an accomplished soccer player with Passage.


Jack Cahalane

GAA | Castlehaven | Age: 17

He comes from solid stock, but Jack isn’t living off the reputations of his father, brothers or sister. Instead, his displays in recent seasons in both football and hurling mark him out as one to watch.

Jack was a dual Cork minor last year, winning an All-Ireland football title, and he’s involved with the Cork U20 footballers this year too. He plays hurling with the Barr’s and football with Castlehaven, so life as a dual player keeps the fifth-year CBC Cork student busier than most.

He will play in the upcoming Dr Harty Cup final with his school, having scored 0-9 in their semi-final win, while switching back to football he kicked 2-2 for Castlehaven in the Carbery U21A football championship recently. If Haven are to go far in this championship, he will lead the charge.

Football-wise, we could see Jack break into the Castlehaven senior team this year and they are quite excited about his potential – he can score, he racks up assists, has good vision and, we’re told, is a great team player. Jack is still young enough for club minor this season too so between Castlehaven and the Barr’s, he’s going to be kept busy.


Luc Cronin

Kickboxing | Dunmanway  | Age: 17

West Cork Kickboxing Club is a medal factory. Over the years it’s produced 14 world champions and 11 European champions, and the next generation is very promising. There’s Gearoid Debarboullier, Grainne Begley and Ian O’Flynn, as well as Dunmanway teenager Luc, who won a silver in the -69kg Junior Low Kick category at the 2019 European junior championships.

Luc will compete at the Irish Open later this month ahead of the national championships where victory will put him in position to qualify to represent Ireland at the WAKO World Junior Championships later this year. He fought at these worlds before in 2018 when he reached the quarter-finals.

A young man with plenty of potential and who trains hard, Luc recently received a Kickboxing Ireland 2019 Award in Kick Light Junior Boys, with the West Cork club’s big two, Lily de la Cour and Tony Stephenson, picking up the big awards on the night. That’s the calibre of kickboxer Luc is training with and learning from.

Luc Cronin.


Darragh Dempsey

Road bowling | Skibbereen | Age: 15

He’s only 15 years old but already Darragh has won three All-Ireland titles – two U12 All-Irelands (2015 and 2016) and an U16 All-Ireland (2019).

Last year’s All-Ireland U16 triumph underlined the Skibb teenager’s talent when the Carbery champion beat the best Ulster could offer in a cracking score in Tullysaran, Co Armagh.

Rewind back to when he was ten years old and Darragh won a county title then too, so he’s been on the radar for some time and he’s regarded by many as a massive talent.

Darragh has been selected on the Ból Chumman U18 boys’ team that will compete at the 16th European Bowling Championships in Germany this May; that’s another notable feat as he won’t turn 16 until June.

A good showing at the Europeans and defending his All-Ireland U16 title are the big targets this year for Darragh whose speed separates him from the rest his age.


Soni Gaffney

Boxing | Bantry | Age: 15

West Cork has produced some quality young boxers in recent years, like Jack Desmond, and his Bantry ABC clubmate Soni is another one on the rise.

Last year Soni won Cork and Munster titles to add to his growing collection. Already, he has three county and two Munster titles to his name, and he’s going to add to them.

Stepping up from 44kg, he will box at 48kg this year and is targeting the National Senior Cadets; he boxes in a quarter-final this Friday evening in the National Stadium in Dublin. If Soni can win his weight category he’ll be put forward to represent Ireland at the European Junior Championships later in the year. On Saturday he will compete in the Cork County Championships.

Soni has all the tools to have another successful year – he has a long reach that he uses to full effect, and that also highlights his boxing intelligence, and also his ability to score points when fighting on the inside sets him apart from many boxers his own age as it’s a skill usually developed later on.


Fionn Herlihy

GAA | Dunmanway | Age: 19

Recently, Fionn picked up the Doheny GAA Club Player of the Year Award for his excellence in 2019 – and it’s easy to see why. As well as winning an All-Ireland U20 football title with Cork, this dynamic forward starred for his club, at U21 and senior, and in both football and hurling.

He’s still involved with the Cork U20 footballers this season and already scored the winning goal in Dohenys’ opening Carbery U21A football championship win, and we’re still in February.

Already, Fionn is a key player for the Doheny seniors and his strong, direct running make him a nightmare for defenders, he is strong off his left and right, has a great work ethic and he also has an eye for goal.

Even though he doesn’t turn 20 until April and is already such an important player for Dohenys, he carries that pressure well. Fionn comes from legendary Doheny stock, too. That GAA pedigree is in his DNA and he is a fitting heir to carry on the Herlihy name with his club.

Worth mentioning too that Fionn is captain of the UCC Freshers’ team this season, leading them to the Freshers Division 1 League title in December.

Fionn Herlihy.


Cian Hurley

Rugby | Clonakilty | Age: 19

Born in South Africa, that’s where he started playing rugby when he was eight years old. When his parents, having moved for work, decided to return to West Cork, Cian (then 13 years old) got involved with the local rugby club in Clonakilty. It didn’t take long for him to make an impression  and as a student at CBC in the city, he progressed onto the Munster scene and then Ireland recognition followed at U18 level.

These days, he stands six foot five inches tall, weighs 106kg, is a formidable force in the back row and is on the Ireland U20 panel that is currently in action in the U20 Six Nations. He’ll hope to keep his place on the panel for the U20 World Championship in the summer.

Cian plays his club rugby with Garryowen, he featured for the Munster As already this season (recently scoring a try against Connacht after coming on for Skibb’s Gavin Coombes). For now, the UL student’s focus is all on the U20 Six Nations and helping Ireland defend their title.


Fiona Keating

GAA | Ballinspittle | Age: 18

There is a reason why Fiona was recently crowned the 2019 West Cork Junior Sports Star of the Year: she’s one of the rising stars of Cork GAA, highlighted by her double All-Ireland minor success in 2019 with the county football and camogie teams.

On the big days, the Courcey Rovers player produces. She was player of the match in the 2019 All-Ireland minor camogie final and also in the 2019 All-Ireland football semi-final, before scoring 2-1 in the football decider then.

Fiona is a Leaving Cert student in Kinsale Community School, and recently she was part of the school team that won the Munster final, while her talent also spreads to basketball and she has an All-Ireland basketball final with the school to look forward to later this month.

In the GAA season ahead, the lethal forward will be a key player for Courcey Rovers in the senior camogie championship, and she will also play junior football with Courceys. Fiona also lines out for the West Cork ladies’ senior football team. In recent years, she has lost county senior camogie and football finals with Courceys and West Cork, and that’s a wrong that she is keen to right in 2020.


Jack Lawton

GAA | Timoleague | Age: 18

It’s no coincidence that the return of Jack Lawton after injury to the Cork minor set-up last June came around the same time the young Rebels saw an upturn in fortunes. He settled into the Cork midfield and was an important player in the county’s All-Ireland win.

A student at Clonakilty Community College, Jack’s a big unit for his age and that helps him dominate around the middle of the field and he’s well able too to knock other midfielders off their game. He’s one of those who is getting better every year and he’s in with the Cork U20s this season, featuring in midfield in the recent John Kerins Cup success.

From Burrane in Timoleague, it’s no surprise to anyone involved with Argideen Rangers to see Jack’s development over the past few years because, from his underage days up, he was used in central positions – full back, centre back and midfield – and was always able to influence a game. Jack also captained numerous teams so he has leadership qualities as well. Currently plays club with Ibane Gaels, an amalgamation between Argideen Rangers and Barryroe.


Charlie Lyons

Soccer | Innishannon | Age: 19

With the League of Ireland First Division season kicking off soon, the Cobh Ramblers defender is keen to build on the progress he made last year, his first season with the club.

The 2019 campaign saw Charlie get a full campaign of regular first team football under his belt and he racked up 25 first team appearances for Cobh, becoming a regular for the First Division side. That was a great experience that the Innishannon teenager wants to build on that.

Charlie moved to Cobh from Preston North End, who he joined from Inishvilla in January 2017 and he spent two years with the Championship club in their youth set-up. The strong left-footed defender, who can play either centre back or left back, has settled in very well in the heart of the Cobh defence and will be a key player in their campaign ahead.

‘Last year was my first season playing in the league and I could see that anyone is able to beat anyone. I learned a lot playing at this level,’ said the former Bandon Grammar School student.


Saoirse McCarthy

Camogie | Ballinspittle  | Age: 19

In 2018, Saoirse announced her arrival when she won All-Ireland minor and intermediate camogie titles in the same year, and was also on the bench when Cork won the senior All-Ireland. Not only that, but she was named player of the match in the All-Ireland intermediate final, was crowned the 2018 intermediate camogie Players’ Player of the Year and also won a Soaring Star All-Star award that year too. It was an incredible season.

Now the challenge is for the highly-rated Courcey Rovers forward to make an impact at senior level with Cork, and she has started this season well, with a crucial goal in the opening Division 1 league win against Waterford.

Saoirse is fast, dangerous and knows where the posts are, and with Cork manager Paudie Murray giving youth its chance during the league, there is a real opportunity for the Cork IT student to put herself in the frame for a starting spot in the Rebel attack for the championship.

Saoirse McCarthy.


Darragh McElhinney

Athletics | Glengarriff | Age: 19

Darragh is regarded as one of the rising stars of Irish athletics, and little wonder given his impressive CV that already includes national records and national titles, including becoming the first Irish teenager to ever run under 14 minutes for 5,000m (13:54.10) last year. Darragh also broke the Irish junior 3,000m record in 2019.

Olympian Rob Heffernan is a fan, too. He said that Darragh is ‘going all the way to the top’. He’s an exciting talent, highlighted by his bronze medal in the 5,000m at the 2019 European U20 Athletics Championships. It shows the level he is at that Darragh was disappointed with bronze.

Afirst-year student at UCD, Darragh doesn’t have any major international championships in the year ahead, but he has set himself plenty of targets. He wants to run a sub four-minute mile and he wants PBs in the 5,000m, 3,000m and 1,500m. Also among his aims are to become the 3,000m national senior indoor champion and 5,000m national senior outdoor champ.

With his junior days behind him, it’s going to be a step-up for Darragh, but anyone who has followed his career so far knows that we’re talking about a very special talent here.


Eimear Minihane

Rugby | Schull | Age: 18

Whisper it quietly, but there are big things expected of this talented Schull teenager. The Skibbereen RFC player was named the Player of the Tournament as Munster won the IRFU U18 Women’s Interprovincial Championship last year; she was a driving force on that team.

Eimear is an out and out ball-carrying number eight, a rare find in women’s rugby. A strong tackler who relishes the physical side of the game and brings an aggression to training sessions and natches, she also has a great ability to break the gain line, and she has already turned a few heads in the Munster set-up.

A first-year student in UCC, she plays with the college’s rugby team and also Skibbereen women’s development team, so she’s kept busy, but that’s how she likes it. Eimear is also trialling for the Talent Identified Programme (TIP) Munster Development women’s squad as she continues to climb the ladder. Eimear is one to watch.

Eimear Minihane.


Liam Murray

Soccer | Caheragh | Age: 14

It’s been an exciting last few weeks for Liam who was away in Spain with the Republic of Ireland U15 international team as they took part in a tournament involving the host country, The Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

Liam played in all three matches, starting against The Netherlands, and for the Caheragh teen, who will turn 15 at the end of this month, to be exposed to teams of the quality of Spain and The Netherlands is crucial to his development.

It’s little wonder that there has been interest from clubs across the water, most notably Championship outfit Charlton Athletic, in the former Skibbereen AFC player, who now plays for College Corinthians.

Last year, talented wing wizard Liam, who plays on the left, featured in all three games when the Republic of Ireland U15s enjoyed UEFA Development Tournament success in October.

This promising Boy in Green, a student at Skibbereen Community School, is the latest in a strong line of talented soccer players to emerge from West Cork.


Laura Nicholson

Athletics | Bandon | Age: 19

These days, the Bandon teen is a first-year student at Temple University in Philadelphia where she is on an athletics scholarship that began last September.

Currently, she is sidelined with injury and it looks like she won’t be competing for the next six months, but Laura, who turns 20 in March, already has an impressive athletics CV to her name.

The 2017 West Cork Youth Sports Star Award winner made her name as a promising middle-distance and cross-country runner with Bandon AC, winning national titles, such as the All-Ireland U18 1,500m title, All-Ireland U18 2,000m steeplechase and All-Ireland U19 3,000m, among others. Laura has also represented Ireland at international level too, and everything combined persuaded Temple University to offer the former Bandon Grammar student an athletics scholarship. Now she’s focussed on her rehab from injury, getting back on the track and showing what she can do.


Laura O’Mahony

GAA | Skibbereen | Age: 19

When Laura won an All-Ireland minor football title with Cork in 2017, she became the first player from O'Donovan Rossa Ladies GAA Club to win an All-Ireland medal – and she’s kicked on from then to earn her spot in the Cork senior panel.

Already this season Laura has three national league appearances to her name, and her reputation is growing all the time. Cork are deploying her as a wing back and that seems to suit her; she’s a strong link between defence and attack, has a great engine, gets up and down the field and she can also score. With the West Cork senior ladies’ football team Laura was predominantly played in the half-forward line, but they did start her in the half-back line against Mourneabbey in the county final.

Her versatility is one of her strengths and, given the competition for places in the Cork attack, if she wants to push for a spot on the starting 15 for the championship, the half-back line looks a good option.

A first-year Sports Studies and Physical Education student at UCC, she’s hoping for a busy year for club and county this season with Rossa ladies pushing for the county junior B title, while the Rebels will target the All-Ireland.


Finn O’Reilly

Rowing | Skibbereen | Age: 17

When Gary and Paul O’Donovan won silver at the Rio Olympics in 2016, Finn was 13 years old and watched the A final at home. He wasn’t even rowing back then. These days, he is making waves in the rowing world.

The Schull Community College fifth-year student recently won the men’s junior 17 category at the Irish Indoor Rowing Championships in UL, while in the summer of 2019 Finn represented Ireland at the Coupe de la Jeunesse in Italy; he was part of the men’s quad that finished fourth. At the 2019 national rowing championships, he won the men’s intermediate double with Kealan Mannix and also finished third in the men’s junior single – and among his targets for 2020 is to win a junior championship at the national championships, as this is his last year competing as a junior.

Also, Finn is determined to earn his place on the Ireland team that will be sent to the junior world championships in Slovenia in August.


Clare O’Shea

GAA | Allihies | Age:19

Clare is a forward’s nightmare. She marks tight, sticky and hard, and is almost inside her forward’s pocket; she is one of those defenders that is very hard to shake off and can nullify the opposition’s danger player. That’s one of the reasons she is regarded as one of the top young defenders in the county and is involved with the Cork seniors these past two seasons.

The Beara teenager, who turns 20 in late April, has featured in both league and championship for the Rebels and her target will be to nail down a spot in the defence for the summer.

Clare is a first-year Early Childhood Care and Education student at Mary Immaculate College, who she is also hoping to reach the Giles Cup final with this season.

This year, she’s determined to make her mark at club and county levels, and raise her own performance levels, and that’s good news for the West Cork senior divisional team that is chasing its first county senior title. Clare is another top football talent from Beara.


Ciara O’Sullivan

Camogie | Newcestown | Age: 18

The Newcestown teenager made her senior debut for the Cork camogie team in their Division 1 league opener against Waterford at Páirc Uí Chaoimh recently – and that suggests another big year is on the cards for Ciara, who is the youngest player involved with Paudie Murray’s senior panel.

She’s coming off the back of an impressive 2019. Last year, Ciara won her second All-Ireland minor A camogie title with Cork, having also been involved in the 2018 success. She then fired her club to county intermediate glory in October when she hit 1-5 in the final win against neighbours Enniskeane; the dangerous forward picked up the player of the match award that day as well. That triumph has sent Newcestown camogie up into the senior ranks for 2020 for the first time in the club’s history.

The Coláiste na Toirbhirte Bandon sixth-year student, who has just turned 18, is a handful for any defence and causes a lot of damage from the half-forward line. She’s also clinical from placed balls, too.

The Cork senior management have kept tabs on Ciara for the past few seasons and feel there is plenty of potential to work with. The experience alone of being brought into the senior set-up this season will improve her.

With Newcestown preparing for their first season at senior and Ciara also in with the Cork seniors, we should see her take another step forward in her development this year. She is the latest in a long line of classy camogie players from Newcestown.

Ciara O'Sullivan.


Hannah Sexton

Roadbowling | Timoleague | Age: 17

Hannah is a dual star with a difference – she juggles road bowling and camogie at the highest levels. Looking at road bowling first, she is the reigning All-Ireland U18 girls’ champion after her success last year, and that was her third All-Ireland following on from two U16 triumphs. This year, Hannah will defend her All-Ireland U18 title as well as compete at intermediate grade. In May, the Timoleague teenager will be a key member of the Ból Chumann youths’ team that will be in action at the European Championships in Germany where she will compete in all three disciplines: road bowling, lofting and moors.

Hannah hails from a bowling family and is one of five sisters who are making a name for themselves – her older sister Kate has enjoyed All-Ireland success, while her younger sisters, Margaret, Ellen and Laura, have all won Munster titles too.

Turning to camogie, Hannah is on the Cork minor team again this year, having won an All-Ireland title with the Rebels in 2019. She’ll likely slot in at wing back as Cork chase the three-in-a-row. The fifth-year student also helped her school, Sacred Heart Clonakilty, win the county A camogie title for the first time ever before Christmas.



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