Pittsburgh Celtics Gaelic football team secures championship

| Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011

Playing in a championship game didn't faze this Pittsburgh football team.

The Pittsburgh Celtics Gaelic football team secured its first league championship in 34 years over Labor Day weekend, winning three games in three days in San Francisco to cap an undefeated season.

Gaelic football originated in Ireland in the late 1800s and remains most popular there. Simply put, it's a cross among soccer, rugby and American football.

"It was a heck of an achievement," said Johnny Connolly, a former Celtics player who's in his first year as the team's head coach. "Our team performed well, especially having three games in three days. It was a good weekend for our guys."

The Celtics (12-0-1) are part of a small-but-dedicated Gaelic football presence here. They, along with their female equivalent, the Pittsburgh Banshees, form the Pittsburgh Gaelic Athletic Association, which totals about 100 members.

The game is played on a surface slightly larger than a soccer field, with soccer-size goals on either end. Atop the goals are a set of uprights, which are taller than ones you'd see at Heinz Field.

Points are scored by either kicking the ball -- it looks similar to a soccer ball but is heavier -- into the goal (3 points) or through the uprights (1 point).

To advance the ball, players can use their hands, though they can't go more than four strides without doing anything with the ball -- either bouncing it, passing it or kicking it. Players will "solo" the ball -- kick it up to themselves -- to maintain possession and cannot bounce it twice in a row.

Games are divided into two 30-minute halves, with 13 players from each team on the field at once. Scores range from single to double digits. The score of the Celtics' championship victory over Detroit was 22-4.

"It's a great combination of different skills that you pick up throughout American sports," Celtics Captain Danny Kelly said. "For me, I played basketball, soccer and volleyball growing up, and this combines those different skills."

Kelly, 29, of the South Side, is like many members of the Celtics: American-born, athletic and new to the sport. Kelly grew up in Homestead and went to Central Catholic. He went to Tulane in New Orleans for college and moved around a bit in his early 20s, but after moving home, a friend's uncle talked him into trying Gaelic football.

Celtics players are not paid -- falling in line with the international custom -- and the team plays its home games at Founder's Field in Harmar, drawing about 300 fans a game, which easily exceeds attendance at any road game, Connolly said.

Though the sport is not coed, both Pittsburgh teams play in the North American County Board, which falls under the Ireland-based Gaelic Athletic Association. Further, both Pittsburgh teams play in the Midwest Division of the NACB, squaring off with teams from Albany, Akron, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Syracuse and Rochester. The teams' biggest rival• Go figure: Cleveland.

The country's biggest Gaelic football hot spots are Boston, New York, Chicago and San Francisco, although many Pittsburgh players are hoping that this year's championship changes that.

"This gave Pittsburgh some national recognition," said Connolly, 40, of Penn Township. "After we won, I had guys from Boston and Chicago coming up to me, shaking my hand and saying, 'You guys have one heck of a team.' "

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