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SQUASH: Weakened Priory are whitewashed.

Edgbaston Priory were last night handed a monumental task to retain their National League crown when they were beaten 5-0 by Manchester Pontefract, writes Fraser Thomson.

The whitewash came as no surprise to the Birmingham side who took a severely depleted side to the runaway leaders in Group A of the league. Priory must now hope their top-string players are all fit for the penultimate match away to Duffield in a fortnight's time and the home clash with Wolverhampton on March 9.

Missing world No 6 David Palmer, world No 21 Adrian Grant, world No 22 Olli Tuominen and former world No 1 Sarah Fitz-Gerald, Priory's expectations were always low, especially as Manchester were nearly at full strength.

Del Harris, promoted to top string for the night, fought gamely in the third set before slipping to a 9-2, 9-2, 11-9 defeat at the hands of world No 4 Lee Beachill.

Hadrian Stiff was always chasing the game against feisty Nick Taylor, the world No 26, who stood in for the absent James Willstrop to win 9-6, 9-4, 9-6.

Adam Stevenson, another late replacement for the visitors, managed to claim a game from Marcus Berrett before succumbing 9-5, 4-9, 9-2, 9-4 and John Harford, Birmingham University's top player, was beaten 9-2, 9-7, 9-5 by world No 61 John Rooney.

In the ladies' rubber Madeline Perry, 19th on the WISPA Tour rankings, comfortably beat Warwickshire's Emma Beddoes 9-1, 9-1, 9-1 to wrap up victory for Manchester leaving Matt Suckling, the Priory coach, to ponder some emergency remedies before the Duffield encounter.

'Lee Beachill was in superb form,' said Suckling last night. 'He picked up everything Del could throw at him. 'We didn't come expecting much from this match and now we have to re-focus on the Duffield game. I am a little worried because we do not know whether David Palmer will be fit. He has a weak adductor muscle that could go at any time while he is playing and Olli Tuominen has just had knee surgery.

'Either way, we have to do well against Duffield [Priory's nearest rivals] and then Wolverhampton on our own courts.'

The absence of Fitz-Gerald last night would have been felt all the more keenly by Priory, who had hoped to parade their star Australian player after she was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia.

The award for services to women's squash, particularly as a player, and the promotion of sport and a healthy lifestyle was announced on Australia Day and is just the latest in a long list of accolades afforded to the former World No 1.

Fitz-Gerald, who has retired from the international scene, said: 'It is way up there with anything else I've achieved. It is a great honour and I will always cherish this.'

She intends to return to her homeland in late April to attend the presentation ceremony. Fitz-Gerald, from Melbourne, stunned the sports world by scoring a remarkable double at the 2002 Australian Sports Awards --winning both the Female Athlete of the Year and the prestigious Dawn Fraser Award for the overall sports personality of the year, ahead of the likes of tennis player Lleyton Hewitt and Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe.

She has won almost every honour available to a squash player. In 2002, she won the Commonwealth Games gold medal in England; extended her WISPA World Tour haul to 61 titles and went on to successfully defend the World Championship title for a record fifth time.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 4, 2004
Words:579
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