You may have seen a group of Gonzaga students, often on Sunday mornings and Friday nights on Mulligan Field practicing a game that resembles something between lacrosse, baseball and field hockey. If you are like many of the players on the team prior to joining the team, you are likely to have no clue what the sport is.
Hurling is played with wooden sticks called “hurleys” and a ball that looks similar to a baseball, yet isn’t as hard, but is not as soft as a lacrosse ball, called a “sliotar.”
This Irish sport is normally played professionally with 15 people and moves quickly. But at this level, the game is normally played with around 11 players and sometimes as few as seven.
“Just explaining the game to people who don’t know anything about it is a challenge,” said senior Liam McKeegan, the president of the GU hurling team. “The skills are also tough to master, and you hold the hurley backwards from a baseball bat, so that takes some practice, but it gets easier as you go.”
The object of hurling is to hit the sliotar into a goal, or through upright goal posts. Like lacrosse, you cannot pick up the sliotar with your hand, but you can use the hurley to get the sliotar into your free hand and then “wack” the hurley into the goal.
Players can catch the sliotar in the air or lift it off the ground with their hurley. A player can run with it balanced on their hurley or carry it in their hand for four steps. They can pass the sliotar by striking it out of their hand.
Liam McKeegan and his brother Kevin McKeegan, a sophomore, formed the team this year after playing around with their own set of hurleys. GU’s hurling team is a no-cut and co-ed bunch.
“Kevin and I have relatives in Ireland who gave us some hurleys a long time ago,” Liam said. “We met up in September to hit around and decided we wanted to start a club, especially after watching a match over the summer. We started talking to our friends and ended up getting a decent amount of people interested.”
Since then, the club has grown to about 17 players.
Grant Schwall had never heard of hurling before Kevin approached him. This didnt stop the sophomore from joining the club.
“Nobody played before this year so we are all learning at the same speed, so it’s fun to watch the team progress and go from never having heard of it to being able to play at this level of intensity,” Schwall said.It’s a lot of fun to play its high paced, high intensity … the sport in its self is unique. It’s 3,000 years old.”
At practice, the group of hurlers run various drills to help further their hurling skills. One of the ways they practice defense resembles sword fighting, but it is a way to block an opponent attempt to make a goal.
“One of the strategies for defense is blocking the shot from coming in,” Kevin said. “The way you do that is you kneel in front of them and hold the stick up above your head so that way when they swing all they hit is [the hurley] and this prevents the ball from going down field.”
This group of players, united through their lack of hurling experience, describe practicing as their favorite part of the sport.
“Some of the most fun we’ve had is meeting up at random times to hit around or scrimmage,” Liam said. “Particularly, when we’ve been meeting up on Friday nights under the lights on Mulligan. It’s awesome to see that the players have so much fun that they’ll play on their own time.”
The college level hurling teams are a part of the National Collegiate Gaelic Athletic Association, or NCGAA. The team expects to compete in the Northwest regional college tournament this fall, to play several games against the University of Montana and compete in the national tournament next winter.
“The games are high scoring which makes them really exciting to play in and to watch,” Liam said. “Being a part of the Gonzaga hurling team is a highlight of my time as a Zag.”
On April 27, the Gonzaga hurling team is hosting a hurling tournament with University of Montana’s hurling team. There should be six to eight teams from across the Pacific Northwest who attend the tournament at Shadle Park High School in Spokane.
Karlie Murphy is a staff writer.