SCHOOL REPORT/ ALEXANDRA COLLEGE AND HOCKEY: Alexandra were there at the beginning and contest another cup final on Friday.
ALEX SET the ball rolling; Alexandra College was there at the genesis of Irish hockey. Young ladies have been educated to the clacking accompaniment of hockey sticks since the school's earliest days. The college even figures prominently in the musty archives of international hockey itself. The first-ever international women's hockey match was contested on the Alexandra College pitch in March 1896 between Ireland and England (Ireland won 2-0).
The school's pupils have a broad palette of sporting choice: soccer, basketball, cricket, athletics, tennis. Hockey, though, comes first. Gillian Coe is Alexandra's hockey coach.
"The school has taken it on and put it in as part of the curriculum. Sport is big here. We get a huge amount of help and support. Out of 600 kids, maybe one-third play on hockey teams. And there are people who don't make the teams, but we do try to encourage.
"Last year we won four cups at different levels, not just senior. So we encourage everything, not just the elite or top-class. The 'Minor Z' team is as important as the 'Minor A'."
The former Irish hockey international Fiona Marshall recalls the sport pervading life at the school during the 1970s. "It's diversified slightly now, with a bigger interest in soccer, but when I was there hockey was compulsory, rather than optional. We were always in a final or a semi-final in all of the six years I was there.
"Hockey was it. I was in a tracksuit and pair of runners all the time during school. A teacher of mine would say: 'There's no point in you coming to do gymnastics.' We used to mitch gym and go out and play on the hockey pitch."
Hockey was, and is, the school's sporting heartbeat. On big cup days, it is the cynosure of all eyes. "I can remember going to hockey matches when you'd have four buses wheeled out. Literally, class was closed and the school went. Then the next day in school would be a good or bad day, depending on whether you'd won or lost."
The numerous peaks of Fiona's schooldays in the 1970s were followed by a two-decade trough. The school won the Leinster Senior Cup in 2005 for the first time since 1978. "I'm the last senior international from the school and I left in 1980. There was definitely a lull there, but they seem to have got it right in the last five years."
The sweet relief of that Leinster Cup win in 2005 was punctuated by final defeat in 2006 and followed by another triumph in 2007 and they are in the final again on Friday when they take on Loreto Beaufort at Grange Road.
The school earned the Sports School of the Year award for that 2007 success. Setanta Sports covered the 2007 final. Alex was again breathing the rarefied air of success, much to Gillian Coe's satisfaction.
"It's been absolutely brilliant. It made us all realise what we'd actually been doing for the last few years, made it all worthwhile.
"The girls put in an absolutely huge commitment. The top teams would train at least twice a week on the pitch, two-hour stick-and-ball sessions. And on top of that, there's physical training.
"We take it pretty seriously. You have to be prepared and have your sessions right. We've had (Corinthians player) Miles Warren working with us for the last seven years. He's been a huge success, an inspiration."
As evinced by the screaming, whooping enthusiasm it elicits on final day in Three Rock Rovers' ground in Rathfarnham, the Leinster Senior Cup is a serious business. Gillian views the girls' schools hockey scene as being more broadly competitive than some other arenas of school sport.
"There's a good standard of competition at all levels. If you compare it to rugby, I'd say hockey has broader competition. There are more schools of a similar standard; you have harder games. In rugby you have the top three or four schools competing, whereas in hockey you'd have more."
Beyond the school itself, there is the Old Alexandra club, originally confined to past pupils but now open to those who did not attend Alex. Nonetheless, strong ties still bind school to club. Fiona Marshall is Old Alex vice-president.
"A lot of girls from the school would go on to college so you'd lose a lot to Trinity and UCD, but then a lot would come back to Old Alex after. Then with the Old Alex Colts (hockey for children from eight to 16), we're particularly looking at children in the school, at getting them into the club at an early stage."
Fiona sees the school's recent resurgence as boding well. "Hopefully there will be another senior international coming out of the school in the next few years. There were a lot of really talented young players playing over the last two years. You can mix the education element of getting kids into college with playing hockey. They need to get the exercise and integrate with people through team sports."
Gillian Coe recognises the risk of sport becoming one-dimensional in a school with Alex's strong hockey tradition. Girls are encouraged to venture beyond the ambit drawn by swinging hockey sticks.
"We try to include them in other sports as much as possible. It gets to the stage where, if they're playing representative hockey, they do have to make a choice but we try to keep it going as long as they can manage it. You don't want them making choices too early. Soccer would play a big part in that."
Two new astroturf pitches are under construction in the school, soon to be complete.
"It's a huge development for the school," says Gillian. "One pitch is water-based and the other is sand-based. The water-based one is specifically for hockey. It's of the top international standard.
"With the new pitches we'll probably be running more teams beyond the 18 we currently have."
New pitches replace old and tradition is measured in changing textures: grass to grit to astroturf.
Through those eras, the intertwining of sport and school has remained a constant.
School: Alexandra College, Milltown, Dublin 6
Number of pupils: 615
Sports played: Hockey, soccer, basketball, cricket, tennis, athletics
School sports colours: Red and white
Major recent sporting honours: Two Leinster Senior Hockey Cups, One Leinster Senior Soccer Cup, Three South Dublin C Basketball League titles
Notable past pupils (non-sport):Former Supreme Court Justice Catherine McGuinness
Notable sporting past pupils: Former motor racing world champion Fay 'Flying Fay' Taylour, Ex-Irish hockey international Fiona Marshall