Three Ulster victories at Irish Schools' Cross Country Championships at Mallusk
WHAT a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago Ulster's young athletes were busted flat in Sligo at the Irish Schools' Cross Country Championships, heading home without an individual title.
It was probably the nadir for the northern province at the championships, which have been going since 1967.
Fast forward to last weekend's 2017 championships at Mallusk and Ulster athletes pick up three of the eight individual crowns and also provided the runner-up in two of those races.
From the opening race where Thornhill College's Cara Laverty and Wallace High School's Victoria Lightbody fought out a memorable battle in the minor girls' contest to Lumen Christi's Fintan Stewart victory in the senior boys' race at the end of the programme, Ulster athletes shone in all age groups.
The Laverty-Lightbody duel will be long remembered as the irresistible force met with the immoveable object. Lightbody strained every fibre of her delicate being to get away from the tenacious Derry youngster who clung to her like glue. It went down to the final five metres before Laverty nudged ahead to snatch the gold medal.
The big occasion, and a nervous mother who could not bring herself to watch the race, did not prevent Dylan McBride from adopting his usual front-running tactics in the minor boys' competition.
The peerless young Grosvenor Grammar schoolboy appeared the epitome of cool running as he strode to a gun to tape win much to the relief of his mum.
Fintan Stewart had never finished in the top ten of an Irish Schools' cross country prior to last weekend but that did not stop the Lumen Christi, Derry pupil from scoring a very impressive victory in an intriguing senior boys' contest.
Stewart bided his time until the last lap when only Banbridge Academy's Patrick McNiff was able to respond. A second 1-2 of the afternoon for the northerners ensued to cap an incredible afternoon from the home point of view.
A silver medal from Strathearn's Amelia Kane in the junior girls' and a bronze from Omagh CBS pupil Sean Corry in the intermediate boys', as well as a host of team medals in the various age groups only served to gild the Ulster lily.
After only one team title in Sligo, it was a northern gold medal rush with St Malachy's, Belfast lifting both intermediate and junior team titles as well as runner-up spot in the minor boys'.
Much credit for this success must go to Malachy's old boy Joe McAlister, who has very obviously breathed a new-found passion into his charges up at north Belfast.
A surprisingly good Omagh CBS squad took the minor boys' team gold depriving St Malachy's of a treble.
St Colman's, Newry were runners-up behind Malachy's in the intermediate competition and were willed on by Rory Friel, who was also the mastermind behind a superbly organised day's cross country.
The Ulster girls played their part in the team competitions with Victoria College, Belfast and Wallace High School, Lisburn taking runner-up spot in the senior and minor age groups while Strathearn, Belfast were deserved team bronze medallists in the intermediate age group.