Sports mad Portadown school enjoying season of success

St John the Baptist College, Portadown is going from strength to strength on the sporting front. Former Down footballer Ryan McAleenan tells us more. Shaun Casey writes…

NOT so long ago, Ryan McAleenan had to wander around the corridors of St John the Baptist College, Portadown, inviting students out to the back field for a game of football. It wasn’t too popular at first, but eventually things started to grow.

Getting players, forming teams, entering and eventually winning competitions, it’s been a quick turnaround for the Portadown school, but they are certainly enjoying the splash of success they experienced this year.

They won four titles with three different Gaelic football teams at three different age grades. St John the Baptist College captured the u-12 Joe Canning Plate, the u-13 JJ Reilly Shield and the u-15 Nagle Cup while the ladies picked up an u-15 Ulster title.

Further glory followed on the soccer pitch this season as the school won six different competitions, with the u-15 team experiencing an unbeaten, treble-winning season under manager Ryan Smith. The school also achieved titles in basketball and netball.

“The previous school was called Drumcree College and had maybe 1400-1500 pupils,” explained McAleenan. “It closed down and then it reopened under St John the Baptist in 2016, it started off as just a Key Stage Three school and then we got GCSEs three years ago.

“We’re hoping to get A-Levels in the next couple of years as well. When I first came into the school there was maybe 150-200 pupils, whereas we’re up to around 550 now and we’re over subscribed, Portadown is a massive area.

“A lot of our students in the past have had to go to the likes of St Patrick’s in Armagh or Lismore College (Craigavon) or even further afield. This community was crying out for a school that was thriving.

“The boss Mrs Noella Murray, she’s brilliant, really top class. She comes from a sporting background too which is even better for me and in terms of organising fixtures, sponsorships and anything we want, she really does try her best to get it.”

For McAleenan, the change in numbers has been a real bonus.

“When I first came into the school I was having to go around classes and ask pupils to come out for a period or two periods to play a game down in the grass pitch. I just about got them out whereas now you’re having to cut down a panel.

“We’re starting to organise trials for pupils to get on to the team. We’ve gone from entering competitions to competing in competitions to winning competitions this year and we’ve had great success.

“There’s been different stages of it, and it just takes one bit of success to get this thing going and then it snowballs from there. It just brings a bit of an energy and a bit of atmosphere and a bit of drive.”

The staff, from teachers to classroom assistants, have plenty of sporting knowledge, experience and wisdom to share with the young students. McAleenan himself, the head of the PE department, played intercounty football for Down not so long ago.

CJ McGourty is currently the manager of the Fermanagh ladies, the Ulster Junior champions, and he played at the highest level in both hurling and football with Tyrone and Antrim respectively.

Tyrone attacker Emma Jane Gervin was named on the Division Two National League Team of the Year this season as the Red Hands achieved promotion to the topflight while Rhona McKeever played for Armagh in the 2006 All-Ireland Senior Championship final.

Classroom assistant Shileen McCabe played international soccer while Armagh defender Barry McCambridge spent his placement year at St John the Baptist. As well as that, there’s plenty of local football players and coaches teaching in the school that offer a helping hand.

“A lot of our teachers and classroom assistants have played sport at all levels for intercounty teams. They are also involved in coaching different clubs teams so I’m really lucky in the fact that I get to really decide what personalities would suit certain teams.

“It’s been brilliant, and I don’t have to beg teachers or any of the classroom assistants to come and help out either, they all want to do it. It’s a release from the classroom for the teachers and the classroom assistants as well as the students.

He continued: “They all get a wee bit of a buzz off it too. You see the teachers coming in after this year and they’re winning titles, and they are constantly talking about it and constantly smiling and it’s a good memory for them as well as the students.

“That’s probably the key reason why we have been successful. As well as the pupils, it’s the staff driving it. Even with our special sports assembly, there was a lot of organisation and the reason why it went well was down to them.”

The school held that special sports assembly last week to celebrate their achievements on the sporting scene and welcomed a couple of local, high-profile sportspeople in to help recognise the good work that is going on.

McCambridge was welcomed back along with his current Armagh colleague Oisin Conaty, who plays his club football with Tír na nÓg, Portadown and has also experienced lining out for Portadown FC in the Irish League.

Grace Ferguson and Roisin Mulligan, Armagh’s two cornerbacks that have had incredible campaigns in the orange and white so far this year, were also invited in and the children responded brilliantly to seeing their heroes up close.

“A lot of our students are from all over the world,” added the Warrenpoint man. “There are 50 or 55 per cent of our pupils for whom English is an additional language. When we’re asked guests to come in, you sort of have to think about who they know and who they’ve seen.

“Oisin Conaty has played for Portadown in the Irish League, he’s obviously with Armagh at the minute too, so all the kids automatically think he’s a superstar. Their mouths are wide open in complete amazement at him.

“Barry plays for Armagh and has marked the likes of David Clifford and all the top players. The kids all know him, they love him and he automatically has that respect from the pupils when he’s teaching because of who he is.

McAleenan continued: “Then you have the likes of Grace and Roisin who are only after winning the National League and Ulster Championship for Armagh ladies and the girls are obviously looking up to them.

“Any time I’ve asked for people to come it’s been no bother and other schools in the past, that wouldn’t always be the case. They maybe don’t probably realise the impact they have when they do come in; they didn’t have to make any speeches or any of that. Just their presence alone, it definitely makes a big impact.”

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