The 2011 M Donnelly GAA Handball All-Ireland Open Singles championships were whittled down to the last 16 over the weekend with the favourites advancing to Wednesday’s second round match-ups.
Tipperary duo, Paul Mullins and Ger Coonan were victorious in Mullingar with wins over Meath's Carl Browne and Dublin's Ian Griffin respectively.
The 2008 Intermediate champion, Mullins had to dig deep to cross the line with a three-point win in the third 21-18 to set up a mouthwatering tussle in the last 16 with Mayo’s Dessie Keegan.
Coonan will now collide with 16-time winner Kilkenny’s Michael ‘Ducksy’ Walsh.
Keegan is one of the favourites for the series and is regarded as one of the hardest hitters in the softball arena, which he emphasized in his 21-9, 21-3 success against Limerick’s Paul Hedderman.
Speaking after his victory, Keegan said: “I knew going down to play Paul (Hedderman) that I would have to start in top gear. Paul is the type of player who is very clever around the court and if you let him, he will control the game and pick up a lead on you.
“I guess in the past I have let guys get good starts against me so I've been putting a lot of energy and focus into starting games well and building on that.”
Looking forward to his next challenge, Keegan anticipates a tough duel against Mullins, whom he’s never met in softball singles.
He added: “Of late I've only played Paul (Mullins) in doubles and I can safely say he hits the ball as hard if not harder than me. Paul is always strong physically and he just goes for his shots and if his shots are coming off, then he will be very confident.
“It's my job not to allow him to get too comfortable taking the shots and to put the ball away before he has a chance to build up a head of steam.”
Wexford's Barry Goff set up an enticing showdown with the experienced Michael Finnegan in the next round, when he secured a 21-14, 21-11 win over Galway's Ollie Conway.
Kingscourt’s Finnegan also impressed when he kept Kilkenny's rising star, Ciaran Neary to single figures 21-1, 21-6.
Current softball doubles champion, Meath's Brian Carroll produced an eye-catching display to defeat Wexford's Colin Keeling 21-6, 21-5 and he now meets Tipperary's Fergal Collins who also looked commanding in his progression over Mayo's Joe McCann 21-19, 21-5.
Wicklow speedster Michael Gregan dominated his opening encounter with a 21-6, 21-9 win over Cork’s Colm Jordan and will now prepare to face the winner of 2003 champ, Meath’s Tom Sheridan and Roscommon’s Ricki O'Gara in the next phase.
In the Ladies division, one of the major contenders, Wicklow's Shauna Hilley had to be at her very best to get the better of Roscommon's Leona Doolin 21-18 in the third game, while teenager, Cork's Catriona Casey signalled her intent to go all the way with a notable quarter-final triumph over Mayo's Pauline Gallagher.
Next up for Casey in the semi-final is number one seed and reigning champion, Kerry’s Ashley Prendiville.