Watching from his goalmouth towards the end of last month's Leinster semi-final against St Rynagh's, Dean Mason thought Ballyhale's bid for a third consecutive All-Ireland title was over.
"I thought we were done!" says Mason.
"I think it was Paddy Mullen hit a ball wide and I thought ‘Ah Jesus, we're going home, this is it’. You'd nearly be ready to put all the sliotars and hurls in the bag or whatever."
Like the killer in a low budget horror film, Ballyhale are never really dead. They trailed by three points late in the game against the Offaly champions, but Eoin Cody's 63rd minute goal resurrected their chances, and sent the game to extra-time. They went on to win by nine points, and then defeated Clough-Ballacolla by 27 points in the Leinster final.
"The ball went in, I couldn't see a whole lot, I could just see bodies everywhere, I saw the ball break when the free went in and I just saw the net rattle and I saw everyone jumping and I said ‘How has this happened?’" Mason says.
"Usually, things like that, when the ball drops into the square and our forwards are trying to score a goal, it usually breaks out eight or nine times out of ten. And this one time, it went in and that was our lifeline."
Though Mason is just 21, the goalkeeper has an incredible list of senior accolades to his name. He's won four consecutive Kilkenny hurling titles and two All-Ireland club championships. He first joined the Ballyhale senior panel as a 17-year-old.
"It was tough at the start, especially playing in goals," he says.
"Because you're a young person and there's people there who are 30-plus, and they're there 15 or 20 years. At the time, I was saying I just needed to keep my head down and keep working hard and keep getting feedback off the senior members of the panel. That's what I just kept doing.
"The whole game changes, the pace of the ball, the speed of the game completely changes from underage level to senior level. That was something I struggled to adjust to when I first started out playing games.
"TJ [Reid] was there and said 'Talk to me about anything'. Richie Reid, as well, who used to play in goal for the Shamrocks up until 2015. He was there saying 'There's tips there and feedback we can give you'. And I said 'Yeah, keep them coming'.
"We were lucky enough that Richie O'Neill was in with Henry [Shefflin] as well. He's gone to Galway with Henry now. But he was with us and was a goalkeeping coach as well. I learned massively from Richie.
"The keeper that was in before me, he was there for a good few years. He went away for a few and then came back again. At the start of the year [in 2017], Henry pulled us all into the dressing room, one by one, and asked us our aims and I said I wanted to start senior championship.
"And he said, ‘At the minute, you need to put in the work and you need to learn and adjust to the game. It's not like a minor match or even like a minor or U20 match with Kilkenny. It's completely different again. We'll let you know how you're going, we'll keep giving you feedback, and we'll help you every step of the way’."
Mason won his first All-Ireland in 2019 while he was still in secondary school. Ballyhale defeated Galway champions St Thomas' - the same side they face in this weekend's All-Ireland semi-final - by 17 points.
"It was crazy because we were still hurling with St Kieran's College at the time," says Mason.
"You'd tell people we're after winning and people would say 'oh, you must be in college or something?' And I'd say, 'No I'm in sixth year, I'm doing the Leaving Cert'. And they'd say, 'That's amazing, that's not heard of a whole lot'."
When Mason won his second All-Ireland in 2020, that Ballyhale team managed a feat never achieved before by the club: Winning back-to-back titles.
"I remember when I first came onto the senior setup and there was an older generation that won three club All-Irelands," says Mason.
"And I remember some of the younger lads on our team - their fathers, uncles would have played [on the previous team] - and it was all about 'We want to beat that, we want to do better than that!' That was the way we set about it. To be better than the older generation.
"That was what the older lads in the pub would be saying as well. 'Ah, sure, you should keep driving it our whatever, but we don't think ye'll do it' That was the drive that was in us, to say we proved ye wrong."
Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
This Sunday, January 23rd, sees another weekend of thrilling club action in store in the AIB GAA Club Championships as the final four teams remaining in the AIB GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Club Championships prepare to lay it all on the line for a place in the final at Croke Park. The first of the semi-finals will get underway at 1:30pm when Waterford champions, Ballygunner face Slaughtneil of Derry at Parnell Park, Dublin, while it's a 3.30pm throw-in for Galway champions, St Thomas' against current holders, Ballyhale Shamrocks of Kilkenny at Semple Stadium, Thurles. Both games will be broadcast live on TG4, with coverage of the first semi-final getting underway at 1pm, while coverage of the second semi-final will start at 3:10pm.