"... it's a special thing whenever people can come together and each contribute a little bit and do more together than they could ever do on their own." - John Neff
Like the proverbial tip of the iceberg, there was much more to North Allegheny cross country and its 2018 season than a history-making performance at this month's PIAA championships.
A running start on the record books
Since the first PIAA girls team championships were won by Brentwood and North Allegheny in 1975, only two schools had managed to leave town with boys AND girls team titles. District 10 power North East turned in the first state sweeps in Class AA in 1982 and 1987. It didn't happen again in AA until 2010 when Elk Lake came away with two golden trophies.
North Allegheny didn't take home a team trophy from the 2017 PIAA finale. However, with half of the total underclassmen finishers in the Class AAA top 20s wearing black and gold and going back to Wexford, the stage appeared to be set for the Tigers to stake a claim for a podium finish or two in 2018.
It wasn't long after the ensuing outdoor track season that head coach John Neff was beginning to see signs that a solid core of XC returnees was committed to greatness.
"It really did start to become like 'wow, these are two really special teams' in July," said Neff, who is in his 10th season as NAXC's head coach. "Some of the numbers the kids were able to do in the workouts and the kind of pace they could hold for 30 minutes was starting to get noticeable. We would look at their Garmin Connect files. They aren't mistaken, they are doing this. They are at a high aerobic level."
The expectations for NA's boys also were raised during the summer months by way of a job-related family relocation of one of the top distance runners from Illinois, Zach Kinne. The Tigers now possessed a potent 1-2 combination with Kinne, a 9:03.55 performer in the 3,200 meters, and standout junior Dan McGoey and utilized this weapon to its full potential race in and race out.
However, Neff said adding a talented senior to an established program wasn't as simple as it might have looked to some.
"More than anything else, I knew Zach was a talented runner, but I felt a responsibility to try to ease a difficult situation for him," Neff said. "He came in and the guys accepted him. He's friends with them, they hang out and they are close, but let's face it Zach had to move his senior year and he came in from a great place where he had friends and he had success. That's a tough thing for a kid so he is transitioning into North Allegheny at the same time that he is transitioning out to eventually Duke.
"I knew he could do something for us, and obviously I'm glad that he was able to, but I felt a lot of responsibility to try to make this a smooth transition for him. And I hope that I have helped in that way."
The Tigers opened their season with a traditional dual meet with Cathedral Prep and Villa Maria, defeating the District 10 powerhouses convincingly. Four days later, they caught the eye of the rest of western Pennsylvania and beyond with championships at the rainy Red, White & Blue Classic at Schenley Park in Pittsburgh. The boys topped rival Seneca Valley and eventual Ohio No. 2 Hilliard Davidson, and the girls followed Hannah Lindgren's lead and used a 1-5 spread of under a minute to beat 2017 state champion Fox Chapel Area.
"This year more than anything else I was more nervous to change anything because I felt like I had a system that works pretty well," Neff said when asked if he tweaked his team's training regimen. "Any time you change anything you think I wonder if the thing I changed from was the linchpin. I didn't really change this year at all.
"That old adage just don't screw them up, and I didn't want to screw them up. You feel a lot of onus not to stand in a kid's way, not to be the person they are tripping over to get to a championship."
The only bump in the road of an otherwise perfect regular season was back in September at the Spartan Invitational in Boardman, Ohio. With an eye already ahead to the following week at the PIAA Foundation Invitational where they would face many of Pennsylvania's best, the NA boys finished second to eventual Ohio Division I champion Hudson as Kinne did not race in lieu of a victorious effort two weeks later at the Paul Short Run. The girls were a close third to a pair of state qualifiers from the Buckeye state.
However, seven days later, both would win in the unofficial preview to the state meet in Hershey.
Regaining their WPIAL magic
When the WPIAL cross country finale moved a couple miles south down I-79 in 2005 from Slippery Rock University to the soon-to-be-legendary layout at Cooper's Lake, a literal switch was flipped for the North Allegheny boys. The Tigers went from Class AAA contender to unstoppable force.
"There is always that drive to win the WPIAL," Neff said. "That's our primary goal every year."
Having finished in the top 4 in AAA in four of the final six WPIAL meets at SRU, the Tigers reeled off 11 consecutive District 7 titles at the campground from 2005 to 2015. Many of the races were almost runaways as NA won by an average of more than 55 points during its unprecedented run at the top.
That streak came to an end in 2016 as rival Seneca Valley claimed the title by a 55-62 margin. In 2017, the Raiders were victorious again, besting Butler by 7 points and NA by an additional 11 points.
The stage was set for a year of tight head-to-head battles in 2018 between the Raiders and Tigers.
"We Tigers have been hungry," senior Luke Turkovich said of NA's district dry spell. "I remember the first day of summer training when Dan McGoey, Steve Nalepa and Drew Kollitz started the run off by discussing our motivation to take the WPIAL title back. I mention this not to diminish the importance of the regular season but rather to indicate our long-term goals for post-season success from the beginning.
"To me, it seemed that, collectively, the team had a competitive edge slightly beyond the previous three years. We carried this attitude into every practice, workout and race, by the time October rolled around, the team was confident, ready to battle and excited to see the fruits of our labor."
The NA girls, on the other hand, had not been able to catch any of the Cooper's Lake magic as the Tigers' most recent WPIAL title entering this season was in the finale at The Rock in 2004. However, that second consecutive district title for the NA girls was the fifth in the final six WPIAL races at SRU and accompanied by PIAA crowns in 1998 and 1999.
Although its finishing order was a little different at the 2018 WPIALs than it had been throughout the year, the Tiger girls were dominant yet again to complete a rare school sweep in District 7. NA's top 5 was jammed into the top 13 for a minuscule 1-5 gap of just 27 seconds. Keeley Misutka and Caroline Daggett paced the Tigers, both running 19:28 to finish sixth and seventh in the district, respectively.
"Even though we have always been a family, the girls team is especially close this year," junior Jenna Mlecko said. "Every day I can't believe how lucky I am to be a part of such a wonderful team. These are the most entertaining, most caring, hardest working girls I have ever met. During races, it's a comfort knowing that one of them is close by and that they have my back. Spotting them out in front of me is also a motivation. I can see the girls I'm running for, I know they are running for me, and we all know we can count on each other."
Getting it done in Hershey
Fast forwarding to the PIAA State Championships, North Allegheny was riding a wave of consistently strong performances that had both teams leading PennTrackXC's rankings. On a muddy course, both teams delivered, executing near perfect performances to sweep team titles.
In breaking down their performances in Hershey, the Tigers used an almost identical 1-5 spread in earning their places on the awards stand. The girls' scoring 5 chopped a point off their Foundation performance for 65 points and was separated by 73 seconds, while the boys' scorers had 72 seconds between runner-up Kinne and Kollitz.
Lindgren's fourth place overall finish in 19:15 led the Tigers in the girls race, while Misutka (12th) and freshman Rachel Hockenberry (17th) also earned state medals. Kinne and McGoey went 2-3 to pace the boys, while Ethan James (44th), Nalepa (52nd), and Kollitz (59th) came in before main rivals LaSalle and Downingtown West's fifth runner, a major key to victory.
|1||North Allegheny||65||4+9+12+17+23 (32+43)||1:13 1-5 Split | 19:51 Avg|
|2||West Chester Henderson||106||1+14+15+20+56 (75+90)||2:36 1-5 Split | 20:02 Avg|
|3||State College Area High School||132||2+19+27+38+46 (67+116)||2:06 1-5 Split | 20:21 Avg|
|4||Dallastown||132||8+22+26+31+45 (128+129)||1:30 1-5 Split | 20:27 Avg|
|5||Fox Chapel Area||163||5+7+21+62+68 (105+118)||2:18 1-5 Split | 20:27 Avg|
|F 5000m||4||Hannah Lindgren||11||19:15.00||4|
|F 5000m||12||Keeley Misutka||10||19:35.00||9|
|F 5000m||17||Rachel Hockenberry||9||19:50.00||12|
|F 5000m||27||Caroline Daggett||11||20:10.00||17|
|F 5000m||43||Maura Mlecko||9||20:28.00||23|
|F 5000m||69||Ally Christy||12||20:48.00||32|
|F 5000m||89||Jenna Mlecko||11||21:00.00||43|
"It was definitely a big motivation," Kinne said of the Tiger girls claiming the AAA title before the start of the AAA boys race. "We knew both of our teams were right on the edge of being able to take the team victory. Once we saw that they did it, we were like, 'Wow, this is a real chance. We could do it. We could be the first team in (AAA history) to sweep it.' Those stakes on the line raised the pressure a little bit, raised our confidence especially. We rose up to the bar that was set and I'm really proud of both of our teams."
|1||North Allegheny||90||2+3+24+29+32 (48+83)||1:12 1-5 Split | 16:47 Avg|
|2||LaSalle College High School||112||13+16+20+23+40 (44+107)||0:31 1-5 Split | 17:05 Avg|
|3||Downingtown West||121||5+10+31+34+41 (53+104)||0:50 1-5 Split | 17:06 Avg|
|4||Seneca Valley||122||6+8+19+30+59 (60+101)||1:09 1-5 Split | 17:05 Avg|
|5||Mount Lebanon||134||1+15+17+38+63 (72+115)||1:49 1-5 Split | 17:02 Avg|
|M 5000m||2||Zachary Kinne||12||16:07.00||2|
|M 5000m||3||Daniel McGoey||11||16:09.00||3|
|M 5000m||44||Ethan James||12||17:09.00||24|
|M 5000m||52||Stephen Nalepa||11||17:15.00||29|
|M 5000m||59||Andrew Kollitz||10||17:19.00||32|
|M 5000m||87||Luke Turkovich||12||17:33.00||48|
|M 5000m||157||Connor Foody||10||18:06.00||83|
Four is a magic number
With all due respect to the proverb (and former best-seller) "It takes a village", North Allegheny's cross country team resembles a small town when it arrives at a meet. Fielding the largest roster wherever it travels, numbers -- big numbers -- are a fact of life for Neff's Tigers.
The 2018 team was a perfectly balanced 192 student-athletes, with 96 boys and 96 girls running. The majority of the squad competed up to the Tri-State Coaches meet, with only the WPIAL and state meets remaining on the agenda. Its head coach noted that the sheer size of the squad -- with four buses required to move it comfortably to meets -- gives many the impression that bigger always is better, with the runners approaching the sport "from all different angles."
"Sometimes I think people think that North Allegheny is full of the same thing as what you saw here today, those kids who are on the medal stand," Neff said after his teams received their PIAA awards. "They are all great kids, don't get me wrong. But some of them are there for an exercise component, and some of them are there for a social component. And that's one thing that I think is nice about cross country: we're able to do something for everyone."
Neff acknowledged that the overall level of excellence at a school like North Allegheny gives his teams a high standard to pursue right from the start.
"It definitely is a place of exceptional people, absolutely," Neff said. "There's a positive peer pressure to do well in school, there's a positive peer pressure to do well on the SATs. There's a positive peer pressure to find something that you are good at.
"We really think that we have something for every student. For some kids, it is the football team, for some kids it's the chess club, debate, the band. For us, it's cross country and we like to think with our little niche that we give our kids something."
With NA's largest-ever girls team in 2018 pushing the no-cut program ever closer to 200 runners total, Neff fully utilizes the talents of his varsity staff - assistant coaches E.J. Robertson, Tad Thayer, Lisa Wheeler and Jeremy Sabo - to make sure the program's needs are covered, from planning the three different daily workouts for the athletes to entering meets, booking hotels and scheduling the mini bus fleet.
"Motivating them all is not the same animal," Neff said of his staff's basic coaching duties times almost 200. "It is a challenge. It's a challenge to make sure everybody is at practice every day and hold everybody accountable. It's a challenge to make sure everybody has their physical and put uniforms on all those people, but I am blessed with four coaches who are just dynamite. They help me like you wouldn't believe. I'm not standing out there on an island, and that's huge."
And as far as transportation, four is the magic number.
"There were a couple times where we had to squeeze on to three (buses) and that's not pretty," Neff lamented.
Back to Wappingers Falls
On the bus ride home from Hershey, Neff polled his runners to gauge their interest in extending the 2018 season as the Wexford Flats Running Club once again and entering next Saturday's NXR Northeast regional in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. Both teams responded with their approvals.
North Allegheny's girls will be taking their first-ever trip to the NXR event, while the Tiger boys last competed in 2014, when their third-place finish to La Salle Academy of Providence, R.I., and Christian Brothers Academy of New Jersey in wintry conditions left them just shy of a trip to the national final.
The top two teams in each race at the nine regionals will qualify for NXN, along with four at-large teams selected by a committee. Also, the region's top five individuals not on qualifying teams will earn spots in Portland, Ore., along with an additional five at-large individuals.
Ryan Gil (above) leads NA to a third place Nike Cross Regionals Northeast finish in 2008.
In 2008, Wexford Flats earned a trip to NXN with a third at Bowdoin Park. They were 12th in the national team final.
"Wappingers Falls is a tough course but one for which we are well-suited," Neff said of the course along the Hudson River. "There are flats, major hills, and weather is often a factor. I like to think all the work for California and Parkview serves us well here."
Although North Allegheny has not taken a team to NXR Northeast in recent years, the Tigers will have some Nike Cross experience in the form of Kinne. Before he and his family moved to Pittsburgh from suburban Chicago, Kinne competed in a trio of NXR Midwest races and the 2016 NXN final with his Neuqua Valley High School teammates. He was the No. 2 runner on a senior-laden team that was 5th in that national championship.
"Zach Kinne's arrival helped us all gel together like never before," Turkovich said. "This added camaraderie definitely gave us an extra push on race days. We learned to battle through adversity whenever we had someone not feeling their best, and we proved our grit when everything was on the line. I can honestly say that having 2018 as my senior year of cross country was truly a blessing and a memory I will never forget."
With the New York state qualifier run the same day, the Northeast meet attracts the top teams from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.
Old NXR rivals Christian Brothers Academy and La Salle Academy are ranked 10th and 13th, respectively, in the current boys MileSplit50 rankings of the nation's top teams. Those teams, in addition to a few others, will pose a major challenge for the NA boys. On the girls' side, North Allegheny will have a good shot at one of the two automatic national qualifying spots with New England champions Champlain Valley (VT) and New Jersey MOC champs North Hunterdon supplying a good test.
Looking to the future
This year's team of nearly 200 student-athletes didn't just materialize overnight or out of thin air, and Neff was quick to credit the work of the Tigers' feeder program in North Allegheny's three middle schools and its head coach, Jason Winschel.
"Jason is a huge part of our success," Neff said of Winschel, who has led the 7th- and 8th-graders since 2002. "As I said above, we get kids sometimes who are looking to be part of 'something.'
"Jason has a way of making kids feel like they are a family and an integral part of the whole. I often say in jest, but in all seriousness, too, that I warn parents that if a kid tries middle school cross country for one day, he or she will be hooked."
This year's team had a combined 133 runners, according to Winschel, who noted that the program has been as large as 154 in recent years.
With a half-dozen individuals and 14 teams having won PIAA titles in the sport, North Allegheny ranks among the most successful programs in state history. Looking at top 7s that were basically unchanged throughout the season for NA shows opportunities for continued success in 2019 and beyond. Led by McGoey, four in the boys' varsity lineup with be back for at least another season, while the girls have even more young talent with just one member of the Class of 2019 running at Hershey and two freshmen in the lineup as well.
"I hope that it does something to increase the tradition that we've had," Neff said when asked what positives might come from North Allegheny's historic AAA sweep. "I hope that there are some younger kids out there who say I want to run in Hershey for the Tigers some day.
"I just personally feel blessed to be part of that. I'm lucky to have the unbelievable kids that I do that are willing to come and work hard and put off success until later in the year or years from now. It all came together this year as a perfect storm. I just feel so happy for those kids because that is something they are going to remember for the rest of their lives."