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All-conquering star Síofra still the one to beat

A new-look Irish schools athletics year moves into top gear next Wednesday when some of the best schools cross-country runners in the country turn out for the Brother By Your Side Schools Invitational at Santry (12.30pm).

If last year is anything to go by, next week's racing should set down a marker for the season to come.

Last year, for instance, Síofra Cléirigh-Buttner of Coláiste íosagáin, our reigning School Sports Star of the Year, was the runaway winner of the girls' senior race and she remained unbeaten all year.

Not only did she take cross-country and track titles at Leinster and All-Ireland level, she also set an Irish junior indoor 800m record.

Her remarkable record saw her the unanimous choice as Herald Schools Sports Star of the Year – and the bad news for her rivals is that she still has a year to go in school.

Plus the production line of good athletes from íosagáin shows no sign of slowing, with Sarah Ní Mhaolmhuire and Hannah Ní Dhea among those those showing promise.

Testing the domination of íosagáin last year were Skerries Community College, led by Isabelle Carron and Rhona Pierce, and they'll be back in force this season, as will St Dominic's Cabra, Rathdown, Holy Child Killiney and St Mary's Naas.

As for the boys, watch out for strong performances from St Aidan's Whitehall, St Pat's Navan, St Fintan's Sutton, Knockbeg and Blackrock College.

In the inter race at the Belvedere Cross-Country Relays in the Phoenix Park a few weeks ago, St Aidan's proved dominant, coming first and third with a squad led by Seán Carrigg and Kevin McKenna.

Not in action were their great rivals from St Pat's, last year led by Kevin McGrath, winner of the junior race at the Brother event.

Other schools cross-country races in the run-up to Christmas will include the Geraldine Dolan Memorial, organised by St Brigid's AC at Ballinaree, Hammonstown, Co Meath next Tuesday morning (11.0).

The big change to the overall schools athletics programme this season is the move indoors for the autumn combined events competitions.

Thanks to the opening of the magnificent new arena at Athlone, the multi-event championships have a splendid new venue.

The Leinster Championships will take place there on Wednesday, October 23, followed by the All-Irelands on Saturday, November 16 and the annual British and Irish international in Glasgow on Saturday, December 7.

Let the games begin!