By Daragh Ë Conch·ir
Waterford’s pain in the All-Ireland premier junior championship final in association with RT+ Sport came to an end at last in Croke Park but they were made to suffer as Down produced a barnstorming second half comeback that just fell short.
The Suirsiders had lost the last two deciders and the scars of those defeats clearly cast a long shadow as they saw an 11-point lead reduced to one by the time Walter Cole brought them blessed relief with his final whistle.
In the end, it was the damage they wrought in the second quarter that got them their hands on the Kay Mills Cup, as they registered 2-5 in that period to give them a 2-8 to 0-5 interval advantage.
Waterford did look tense early on and Down might have had two goals but for the bravery of Charlotte Raher and the alertness of goalkeeper Ashling O’Brien.
Zoe O’Donoghue got Mark Cooney’s charges under way having received a perfectly-timed pass from Karen Kelly less than a minute after Raher threw herself in front of a Lisa McCrackard shot at the other end of the field.
Catherine McGourty levelled for Down before providing Karen McMullan with the sliotar to put the Mourne girls ahead.
The outstanding Ruth Geoghegan snapped up possession brilliantly before rifling over from 40m to level again before Poc Fada champion Trish Jackman launched a mighty score from 60m, following a brilliant block by Grßinne Kenneally.
Jackman was named player of the match and she certainly had a massive influence in this decisive period.
Kelly and the electric Niamh Mallon exchanged scores before the former took a quick free from just outside the 20m line to Geoghegan, who coolly rounded a Down defender before driving a low shot to the Down net in the 20th minute.
McGourty responded from a free five minutes later, but within seconds, Waterford had another goal. Jackman embarked on a powerful run from midfield before unleashing a powerful shot that Kitty Fegan saved despite a deflection. Kelly was on hand to ram home the rebound though and the full-forward added three points to open up a nine-point gap at the break.
That margin was 11 by the 42nd minute, as Kelly and Jackman shot points and there seemed little prospect of Down making any inroads at this juncture.
This is clearly a spirited unit though and they gradually chipped away at the deficit. Suddenly, from looking like they were just putting a more positive slant on the scoreline, it became evident that Down had taken complete control.
Their midfield dominance kept the likes of Geoghegan and Kelly out of the game and were it not for the excellence of Raher, they might have been in even more trouble.
McGourty, Mallon, Lisa McPolin, Kelly O’Higgins and Fionnuala Carr were all on the mark as Down poured forward, scoring eight points without reply. Waterford were struggling to plug the gaps and suddenly, there were just three points between the sides.
Crucially though, Nicola Morrissey fed Niamh Rockett for the winners’ first score in 17 minutes just short of the hour.
That proved significant when at the other end of the field, O’Higgins’ attempted point hit the upright seven seconds into injury time and substitute Nicola Braniff was on hand to strike first time to the Waterford net.
The Ulster girls drove on, looking for a sensational equaliser but Emma Hannon made a brilliant intervention at the death and Waterford could finally celebrate.
Scorers – Waterford: K Kelly 1-5(0-4fs); R Geoghegan 1-1; P Jackman 0-2, N Rockett 0-2 each; Z O’Donoghue 0-1 each
Down: C McGourty 0-5(3fs, 1 45); N Mallon 0-3; N Braniff 1-0; F Carr 0-2(fs); L McPolin, K McMullan, K O’Higgins 0-1 each
Waterford: A O’Brien; E Hannon, J Simpson, KM Hearne; S Kiernan, C Raher, G Kenneally; P Jackman, D Fahey; N Rockett, N Morrissey, A Hannon; R Geoghegan, K Kelly, Z O’Donoghue. Subs: J McCarthy for A Hannon (34)
Down: K Fegan; O Maginn, C McGovern, E McCormick; P Gribbin, F Carr, K Tinnelly; L McPolin, K McMullan; c McGourty, L McCrickard, K O’Higgins; N Mallon 0-2, SL Carr, K GribbinL Hughes for McCormick (ht); N Braniff for McCrickard (47)
Referee: W Cole (Cork)