Hills Road Sixth Form College to head to AoC Sport National Championships in force
The academic success of Hills Road Sixth Form College is widely heralded, but the sporting accolades go far more under the radar.
When it comes to the release of results at the end of the year, it is a one-off moment when, more often than not, the efforts and hard work of two years can be recognised.
In the broadest sense, sport does not tend to have that showpiece occasion whereby everything can be brought together at the same time.
Different events and disciplines have local, regional and national finals at vastly different times. However, there is an occasion whereby the focus is much more concentrated.
The AoC (Association of Colleges) Sport National Championships is the largest annual student sporting event in the UK, with nearly 1,700 college students taking part each year.
Member colleges qualify through regional tournaments to represent their region, with teams and individuals accumulating points in order to try to win the Wilkinson Sword Trophy.
At this year’s finals at the University of Nottingham’s David Ross Sports Village from April 22 to 24, Hills Road will have 82 of the 90 students representing the East of England.
Showcasing the broad range of sports at the college, Hills Road will be represented at the finals in the men’s and women’s rugby, women’s basketball, badminton, mixed cricket, mixed hockey, table tennis, tennis and men’s and women’s cross country.
It may have been even more but for some near misses in the men’s basketball, netball, volleyball and women’s football.
It is also the most students that Hills Road will have had representing them.
“As we have such a vast depth and breadth of provision, every year we get different teams that qualify,”explains Ayden Duffy, head of sport at Hills Road Sixth Form College.
“We’ve got a few teams that we’re really lucky that we have really good students and amazing staff and they qualify most years.
“But on an average year lots of different teams are qualifying that might just miss out the following year because the quality of the competition is so high.
“For example, the women’s basketball team have qualified for the first time and the men’s rugby have qualified for the first time in 13 years – they are competing against all the rugby academies so to qualify for that is absolutely fantastic.
“I think every year we have a lot of success in the competition. This year particularly, I think we’ve got higher numbers for a range of reasons.
“We’ve got certain sports that have qualified that have not qualified in the past, obviously some sports we would have liked to have qualified haven’t which is always the way.
“Lots of teams came second. The biggest previous team we’ve had is 76 students, and this year we’ve got 82 and we will be taking nine or 10 staff for the weekend.”
There are a total of 12 regions heading to the national finals, and the South East and South West have been two of the most successful in recent times.
With 12 different sports in total, there are certain teams that always stand out in certain disciplines.
For Hills Road and the East, they have high hopes for the badminton team, who are coached by Paul Martell.
The cross country team has 10 students, and many of them could have competed in a number of different sports.
There is a strong table tennis team which includes Isobel McGerty, who is part of the England set-up, and tennis player Yujiro Onuma is ranked No 2 in the country in his age group. While the men’s rugby team had to overcome the hugely successful Seevic rugby academy to reach the national stages.
There are a range of different reasons for the success of sport at Hills Road, according to Duffy.
“It is a variety of things, but without doubt the commitment and dedication of the staff and the students has been key,” he explains.
“I think we’ve got fantastic students that come to us with an urge to play sport and the staff are absolutely fantastic in giving their time and extra time to help the students exceed their potential and do really well at the competitions.
“But we are pulled tight for resources and time, therefore that is always our biggest uphill battle and I would argue to be successful within our constraints.
“Having said that, the depth and breadth that we offer at the college with regards to sport, we have 24 sports and 37 sports teams, for a state college, is one of the biggest in the UK and we’ve probably got one of the smallest staffs as well.
“The staff is so crucial in providing that provision and each year keeping the students engaged is obviously hugely important to being so successful on the pitch or on the field.”
One of the major factors in having record numbers this year was the way in which Hills Road kept students engaged during the pandemic lockdowns.
When it was not possible to do any sport, they ran a lockdown challenge where students could compete individually in challenges but earn points for their sports teams to win prizes.
They also won a national competition, the AoC Sport Round the World Challenge, for walking the most steps and miles, which was around 50,000.
Duffy said: “A lot of people are aware of the academic success of Hills Road Sixth Form College and that students come here and get some of the best results in the country.
“But what I think it also shows is the huge amount of depth and breadth of sport that is available, not just elite sport but from competitive sport and enrichment sport.
“We’ve got three key themes at the college and we run huge enrichment, competitive and elite club sport programmes.
“To run that particularly during Covid and to keep that going is a fantastic achievement.”
As for the long-term aim? It is to one day win the Wilkinson Sword Trophy for the East. And, who knows, maybe it could be this year.