An extensive history of the Nashville Gaelic Athletic Club will someday point out that while the club was founded around a group of people’s love for the sport of hurling, there was also a Gaelic football at its very first official occasion.
2016 came with a mission to give life to Gaelic in the NGAC. The second half of the year would be marked by the first regularly scheduled trainings for the sport, with established members and fresh new faces all learning how to lift the ball with the foot, fist pass the ball, solo off the toe, and all the other basics. To break the streak of entropy at that level, the club enlisted the help of football obsessive Matt O’Donnell to head the Gaelic Football Development Committee in the spring of 2017. This led to a much more focused brand of the sport, which was designed to make way for the very first league of competitive play for the club in the summer.
The inaugural NGAC Gaelic Football league would held at the field house of Boost FitClub, located just west of downtown Nashville. Due to Nashville’s high summer temperatures, combined with excruciating humidity and piercing midday sun, it was found best that this first league be set indoors. Eight players comprised each of the 3 teams, with an active side of 6 players (5 fielders + 1 goalkeeper, with 2 subs). Team sponsors included East Nashville Beer Works (ENBW), Asgard Brewery, and One Hour Heating and Air (OHHA).
Prior to the season, it looked as if all three of the teams had an even match to them. No one could say for sure how they thought the season would pan out. It would be all up to who was available to each roster to play on match day and what transpired on the pitch.
Week 1 – July 9
ENBW def. OHHC
ENBW def. Asgard
OHHC def. Asgard
The first week of play saw dynamic, yet measured play across the board from each team in each game. As the first organized attempts at Gaelic football go, it certainly passed the “eye test”. In other words, if anyone who was familiar with the sport were to be watching, they’d agree that it looked like Gaelic.
ENBW won the day with an early exposition of strategic play to win easy, critical points, including a brilliant 45 meter free kick from captain Danny Espensen. Asgard would struggle to win kick outs from either end and create enough scoring opportunities from play, keeping their win column empty for the first Sunday out. OHHA would divide their time between the whistles evenly, backed by superb hand passes from Jesse Gentry, fine ground game, and effortless looking kicks over the bar by their head man, Liam Barry.
Interlude: Peach Cup, Atlanta – July 15
Structured into the schedule would be a weekend for members of the NGAC to travel to Atlanta, GA to compete in the Peach Cup. This tournament holds importance alongside our first league as it would also be the first time we’d see dedicated players travel for Gaelic football instead of the hurling members getting a game in during a break in their schedule. Teaming with members of the Memphis club and a few lads coming up from Orlando, the NGAC was represented with as many as 6 players on a side at a time, including Pancho Mackin-Plankey and Matt O’Donnell, who both played in all but one match on the day. Both players made strong impressions throughout the tournament, with O’Donnell scoring 0-3 from play.
Week 2 – July 23
Asgard def. ENBW
Asgard def. OHHA
ENBW def. OHHA
When league play resumed, the competition took back some of the parity that the pre-season predictions had been hinged on. Asgard fought their way back into the standings by winning out their day in back-to-back matches. The Norsemen implemented a strict policy of defensive pressure on every scoring chance for the opposition, and were aided by the out of nowhere ball winning abilities of NGAC rookie Bryan Miller, impressive kicks from distance by Tim Walter, and 2 goals off the left foot by club chairman, Ryan Buckley. ENBW would win the third match with an onslaught of fisted balls over the bar for points, primarily by Chance Butler, that just couldn’t be matched.
Week 3 – July 30
Asgard def. OHHA
ENBW def. OHHA
ENBW def. Asgard
Anything was still up for grabs as the teams entered the second half of the league. Asgard’s strategy of stifling most chances of score from play continued through the first match with OHHA, in large part thanks to late addition Nick O’Rick helping to create a blockade on the defensive line, though the slippery midfielder Patrick Deneen made things incredibly difficult around the middle 1/3 of the pitch.
ENBW would take the mid-card match on the strength of great ball-stripping from Brendan Rauer and movement to and from forward Molly Bombardi, The team in navy blue would again prove what they could manage when they had momentum carry through back to back matches, despite great effort in the backfield from Ben Flynn.
In the Week 3 closer, Asgard’s Chris Davis would help keep points on the board and the team would take a lead into halftime. However, ENBW’s Pancho Mackin-Plankey facilitated the ball forward with a fine athleticism, while the speed and aptly timed passes of NGAC stalwart Corbett Ouellette were just a little too much to be overcome.
Heading into the final week, the standings would read:
With just one week of the league season left, it looked like some of the balance that had looked so good was beginning to break down. ENBW was cruising through their schedule with a roster full of speed and power, while the other teams just couldn’t keep pace. The best hope looked like it would be for an overwhelmingly unlikely tie at the top. This would require Asgard to win out the day, and have OHHC produce just their second win in the remaining contest.
OHHA def. ENBW
ENBW def. Asgard
OHHA def. Asgard
Heading into the final trio of matches, there was some anticipation over the possible path to victory for Asgard. Based on the schedule rotation, however, captain Matt O’Donnell and his team would have to wait out the result of the ENBW vs OHHA match to know if they would even be able to take the season into their own hands. OHHA would come out of the gate blazing, taking the lead midway through the first half and being tied twice before they didn’t have to look back. The much needed victory was built on both ends, with midfield beast Ryan Lowe and Joy Grabenstein’s superb ball control returning to the roster, and Liam Barry’s goalkeeping enabling the side outfitted in his native Cork colors to come out on top.
Asgard took the pitch for the second match knowing full well that their play would determine whether or not they could match the top of the heap. Asgard’s lead at the halftime whistle was defined by placing a dedicated defender on Pancho Mackin-Plankey, who had spent the entire league as a bottleneck for ENBW, being fed balls from the back line or moving kick outs won up to the forwards. An early goal and a couple of open space balls over the bar by Matt O’Donnell did well to hopes alive and good spirits. When play resumed, however, ENBW had other ideas. While the final moments of their first match were marked with an unusual amount of erratic wide scoring attempts, Danny Espensen’s side would make up for most all of them with enough to solidify that ENBW would stand alone as champions.
The final match of the NGAC’s first attempt at league play for Gaelic football seemed like it would be a play for pride between Asgard and OHHA. Asgard would enter the match with a 2-1 advantage in head-to-head play between the teams. When it was all said and done, it would finally be OHHC’s turn to win out their entire day slate. The red team started the match with two goals inside the first quarter of the match, but Asgard was able to stay close on the trail, thanks to defender Ryan Culligan pulling opposing passes to the forward line out of the air. Nearly as soon as the referee threw the ball in for the second half, OHHC closed the book on the match. A beleaguered Asgard would be unable to produce quality kick outs. This led to a parade of OHHA players, including Evan Lamberth, Joy Grabenstein (from both legs), Patrick Deneen, and Ryan Lowe floating seemingly effortless points over the bar in blistering succession. So while the buildup had hoped for a return to even keel at the top end of the standings, it was OHHA who mastered the day to balance out Asgard!
NGAC 2017 Gaelic Football Summer League Champions: East Nashville Beer Works
Congratulations are in order for the East Nashville Beer Works team, led by their captain, Danny Espensen! Their high level of tactical play and pure athletic talent kept them as the team to beat all season.
Time will never forget, rightfully, that ENBW are the first winners of the NGAC Gaelic football championship. At the same time, though, there will always be a sparkle in the cup for everyone who made the inaugural league a reality and a rousing success.
Someday, you could be forgiven for looking back at the inaugural season and seeing grueling, oftentimes clumsy matches played by small teams on an unusually small, artificial turf pitch. However, anyone who was there will be happy to tell you otherwise. They’ll tell you how expectations for the league were regularly topped and adjusted on a weekly basis leading up to the opening match. They’ll tell you how dedicated the training was to not simply producing something that looked like the sport. They’ll tell you about points scored from nearly everywhere on the pitch. They’ll tell you about how each player’s position was ultimately only a suggestion, that their work rate had to be higher to keep their team covered. They’ll tell you about feverish short hand passes, points that snuck in through the lowest corner of the narrow uprights, and the unpredictability of where kicks of the highest arc might land. They’ll tell you that on four Sundays in the summer of 2017, Gaelic football staked its first claim in Nashville.