A day of high drama and even higher emotion signalled the end of the regular North West cricket season as Strabane only just managed to overcome dogged Ardmore at the Bleachgreen on Sunday to claim a third senior championship in the past six years. It was hard work, but by their own admission pretty much everything has been hard work this season and quite a bit of it has been their own doing.

All of that counted for nothing however the moment that Ryan Patton sent the penultimate ball of the 50th over crashing into Gerard Brolly's stumps to confirm that the title was headed for the Park. Unbridled joy ensued from players and supporters alike and in that split second the pressure valve was released after a 5-month battle with Brigade for the region's biggest prize.

The emotion got the better of a few and although he looked calmer than most, one man was responsible for that. Mark Gillespie had made it perfectly clear that win, lose or draw, this would be his last game in senior cricket. Few players have epitomised the Red Caps more than “Gilly” and typical of him it was his innings of 65, a superb knock in seriously testing batting conditions, that gave the new champions anything to defend.
And defend it they did, but only just.

Strabane's bowling attack has been held in very high regard this summer but when the chips were down it was a couple of familiar faces that helped seal the deal on Sunday. Ryan Patton has been excellent for them all season and it showed the confidence they had in the left arm seamer that he was the “go to” bowler for the all-or-nothing final over. He and Ryan Gallagher have tied teams down throughout the campaign, even on the days that they hadn't much to defend and both had huge parts in this success. Tawanda Mupariwa, Jonny Robinson and Matt Bentley have all been excellent too- on a personal note I was very surprised to see Robinson taken off after 5 overs at the weekend as he had the batsmen in real trouble, but the skippers got it right by whichever means.

For another man though it will surely have been difficult to keep his calm demeanour on Sunday evening after a testing few months. Tommy Barr began the season as skipper but then picked up a ligament injury while jumping for a catch in their All-Ireland defeat at St Johnston in June. The spinner said that at the time it seemed like a regular injury however as the days went by there was little sign of improvement.

“At the start the diagnosis was that I wouldn't be able to play for 4-6 weeks but the injury never properly healed. I played a few matches for the seconds in August and then was delighted to be involved in the Ulster Plate final but I was never quite fully fit. Peter came and talked to me when it became clear that Tawanda had to leave early and he asked me to come in for the final couple of games. I was delighted to be involved given what was at stake but I remained worried about breaking down during a game and jeopardising things even more. Thankfully it has held up OK and I now have treatment lined up to continue my rehabilitation”.

The club captain agreed that his side had gone into the new season knowing they had a big chance and he had plenty of praise for stand-in skipper Peter Gillespie and the rest of the team. “We knew we hadn't done ourselves justice last year and a couple of subtle tweaks seems to have worked the oracle. We had the right mix and we backed ourselves and everybody in the team played their part. While we knew what we were getting in terms of a bowler when we brought in Tawanda we were delighted with his batting.

"His runs were critical at times and I can honestly say we wouldnt have been champions without him. We had so many options in our attack it was never easy finding the right combination, especially with four off-spinners. That said, the four of us- Jonny Robinson, Matt Bentley, Ryan Gallagher and myself are different types of spinners and we were able to utilise everyone as each match situation dictated.

"The seamers were excellent too and Mark Snodgrass and Ryan Patton led the line really well with Tawanda. On the batting front Kevin Martin, Aaron Gillespie and Mark Gillespie all scored very valuable runs throughout the season and you only have to look at the numbers to see that this was a real collective team effort.

"In truth I never expected to play again for the first team this season and although I'm delighted I did, I want to acknowledge the work that Peter Gillespie did in my absence. It's never easy taking over the captaincy from someone else, more so for the work requied off the field, but Peter had a brilliant season. His batting dug us out of some awkward situations as well but he deserves the utmost credit for the work he and indeed all the boys put in. Peter sums up all that Strabane Cricket Club stands for and you could see what this title meant to him on Sunday”.

And Tommy was quite right too as an emotional Peter Gillespie struggled to put his thoughts into words after picking up the senior trophy from Cricket Ireland President Joe Doherty. “We didn't make it easy for ourselves today but then that's been us all year. Our attack dug us out of a hole again but the truth is that the batters haven't been at their best this season so the bowlers have had to do that quite a lot. It has been a total team performance and that is what makes this such a wonderful achievement.

"There is a bit of everybody in this win, not least our overseas professional Tawanda Mupariwa who has been brilliant for Strabane Cricket Club. My big regret at the end of the game is that I won't get the chance to play senior cricket with Mark again now that he is retiring. He wanted to stop last year but we had such a bad season as a team that I asked him to give it another year. I didn't think it was fitting for him to retire on that sort of note so I'm delighted that he has been a huge part of this. His innings today was just typical Mark, a calming influence exactly when we needed it. For my money he has been the best cricketer this club has ever produced and while I wish him the very best on the golf course I know exactly how difficult it is going to be to fill his shoes”

And for his elder sibling it was an equally emotional evening at the only other ground where he has ever played his cricket, Mark having spent a promotion-winning season at Ardmore in 2002. “A league champions medal is a very special way to bow out of senior cricket so it is a fitting way to close out a career that's been going for 30 years. I think when your mind and body are both telling you to pack it in you have to take notice. I wanted to step down last season but Peter and I chatted quite a bit about it over the winter and he urged me to give it another year, so I'm thrilled now that I did.

"I thought those young Ardmore lads were going to spoil the day though and Conor and Ryan Brolly in particular played superbly. Once we got Decker, I'm not going to deny it, I thought we had it in the bag but fair play to Ardmore they kept coming at us. Ryan Gallagher and Ryan Patton's bowling just about got us through in the end but that was real scare from a very good Ardmore team. I had a season at the Bleachgreen a few years back and I know just how got a club they are so if I wasn't going to sign off at the Park there was nowhere else I' rather do it than here”.

And so ended another cricket season and one where the highs and lows of the sport were fully in evidence throughout Tyrone. Fox Lodge unfortunately relegated from the Premier Division while it has been a double whammy for Sion Mills- relegation and difficulties with their own ground as the season drew to a close. Hopefully both of those clubs will bounce back straight away because the North West certainly needs them.

At the other end of the scale Bready claimed the crown of Ulster champions while Donemana were dominant in the senior cup. Killyclooney went all the way to the final of the National Cup and put in an impressive shift in the league as well while the icing on the cake was Strabane's title triumph. Plenty to celebrate then and hearty congratulations are extended to all who helped make it a memorable summer.