It was Mallusk ‘but not as we know it’ last Wednesday, as the normally bleak cold and muddy City of Belfast playing fields high on the Antrim plateau were bathed in unseasonable spring sunshine with dry underfoot conditions and mild temperatures, as the Ulster Schools’ finals took place.

And there were some excellent local performances particularly in the younger age groups with St. Michael’s and Mount Lourdes both taking team gold.

In the first race of the ten race programme, the Mini Girls, the excellent work being done by Eamon Monaghan and Heather Williams, at Enniskillen Running Club, was clear to see.

Abigail Boyd and Aiobhin Kelly were in the leading pack from the start, with Abigail eventually taking the silver medal while her Mount Lourdes team mate finished seventh, and with Niamh Boyle completing the scoring trio the Enniskillen school secured their first team title in 22 years.

The Mini Boys was almost a carbon copy of the girls event, with the St. Michael’s trio of Frank Buchanan, Conor Mulligan and Charlie Rehill in the front group of eight for most of the 1600m race.

Buchanan eventually won the bronze medal, St. Michael’s first individual medals at these championships in six seasons, with Mulligan finishing eight and the fast finishing Conal Rasdale pipping Rehill as the duo completed the St. Michael’s scoring for a comfortable team success, the ‘blue vests’ first team title in three years.

While the two Minor (U14) races did not bring any medals for Fermanagh athletes, there were some very solid runs with Laoise O’Keefe and Beth McMahon of Mount Lourdes, and Crioadh Monaghan of St. Fanchea’s all making top 30, as did Liam Corry and Rory Smyth of St. Michael’s with the Enniskillen boys unfortunate to miss All-Ireland team qualification by the minimum margin of one point in what was a very open team race.

Sophia Williams showed once again all her battling qualities with an excellent fifth place finish for Enniskillen Royal in the Junior Girls.

And her Enniskillen Running Club teammates were again to the fore as they secured a fine team silver for Mount Lourdes with Carla McCool leading them home in 10th and the Duffy sisters Muireann and Grainne completing the scoring. The leading local Junior Boy was Cain Fitzpatrick of St. Michael’s who, having been in an All Ireland qualifying position for 95 per cent of the 3200m race, was unfortunately edged out in the closing metres but he will learn from the experience.

There was limited local interest at the front end of the Intermediate races with Oisin Cassidy of St. Michael’s having a slightly disappointing run given his season to date in what was a boys race of the very highest quality, but he battled well to secure his All-Ireland qualification.

The margins in this race were very small with less than a minute covering the top 20 athletes over 5000m, and every one of those was a top class young athlete.

St. Michael’s took fourth in the team race but never seriously threatened the medals.

Perhaps the best individual performance of the day, with due respect to the Mini medallists, came in the Senior Boys, where Ronain Maguire representing Erne Integrated College got himself right into a titanic team struggle between the top two outfits in the country, St. Malachy’s and St. Colman’s. And Ronain was rewarded with an excellent fifth place in a race where top club athletes and junior internationals dominated the lead group.

This was the highest placing for a Fermanagh athlete in this race since another Belcoo athlete, triple Ulster champion Niall Cullen, finished in the same position a decade ago, and indicates the huge potential of Maguire who is largely self coached.

Yet again, for the third time on the day, that most frustrating of places, fourth, was the lot of St. Michael’s, lead by Peter Bennett, Aidan McDonnell, Oisin Leonard and Mark Monaghan.

Bringing through some of this young talent will not be guaranteed as the drop out rate in all sport is high and distance running demands a commitment not required of most of the major team games. The club rather than the school is increasingly where under age athletics work is done and the good work already being done in the likes of Enniskillen Running Club will need to be built upon and extended to match the success of other areas with a higher population base and better sporting infrastructure. The talent pool which saw St. Michael’s dominate schools cross country and track and field a decade ago is not there any more, and indeed was unprecedented for a small county like Fermanagh, but the good work being done with girls athletics in particular is highly encouraging.