Love 'em or hate 'em, there's something special about the bus ride to a cross country meet.
When you wear the colors of the North Allegheny Tigers, even the 5-mile commute to nearby North Park for a team practice or home meet is out of the ordinary. Especially when your full varsity roster checks in annually at close to 200 runners.
Possibly the most memorable bus trip in program history was the almost 230-mile journey last November to Hershey for the PIAA championships. And the return trip for NA's top 24 after completing history's first Class AAA sweep was the piece de resistance.
"They were loose," head coach John Neff said of his teams' demeanor eastbound to Hershey last fall. "They were serious enough they knew they had a big job and that it was all coming to a head. I had a good feeling when I was on that bus ride, for sure."
And the ride back?
"I think I felt some relief," said Neff, who opened his 11th season today as NA's cross country head coach. "I don't know that they felt that kind of pressure or anything. I think it was an exhilaration thing for them. 'Just look at what we were just able to do.'
"In the end, we focus on as long as you're out there and you're giving it your best, what else can we really ask for. I don't think they had any feelings of pressure. They definitely did have a sense of pride when they were riding back. The bus ride out was fun. The bus ride back was really kind of loud and what you would expect."
North Allegheny hit the road today to Erie to start the 2019 season with their traditional opener with District 10 sports powers Cathedral Prep and Villa Maria. The Tigers' upcoming schedule is identical to last year's, with the same dual meets sprinkled in between the Red, White & Blue, Boardman (OH) Spartan, PIAA Foundation and Tri-State (TSTCA) invitationals before the WPIAL and PIAA championships.
When asked if he was considering tweaking his approach to the season in hopes of a repeat performance at Hershey, Neff's response was a simple "No."
"If anything, I'm trying to think of exactly what did we do," he continued, with a laugh. "I keep a lot of meticulous notes about what we do every day, and I'm trying to make sure that we don't deviate very much from what we did last year.
"It's even like a running joke. There will be this silly little thing that we did last year that clearly had nothing to do with (our success), but (the kids) will say, 'Coach, we did this last year and we won state so we have to do that again.' It's a lot of let's try to replicate what we did last year."
Veteran runners return for NA
A total of 10 of the 14 runners who made history for the storied program in northwest Allegheny County are back for another run at PIAA gold, with six returning for Neff's girls team.
"I have seen that especially on the girls side," Neff said of the benefits of winning a year ago. "The girls approach training differently than the boys, but I have seen more girls buying into it this year. There have been girls getting in on our tempo workouts with the top group more than in the past and some girls who didn't have that confidence last year.
"I don't know that they didn't want to take a chance or didn't think that there was any way it could pay off. Now we are starting to see some girls that are taking that chance. Maybe it will pay off and maybe it won't, but there's something there that is telling them that it's worth the risk. And I like that a lot."
Hannah Lindgren was the top returnee a year ago, and she will assume that role again in 2019. The senior, who was fourth overall in the 2018 AAA XC finale, said the mix of experienced returnees and rising underclassmen has the potential to make North Allegheny better than a year ago.
"Obviously, it's different in that we lost Ally Christy, who was the senior in our top 7," Lindgren said. "She was a great leader, very positive. Having her kind of be like the mom of our group, it was nice to have her there, and I think we're going to miss her leadership.
"I think the younger underclassmen are only going to improve. As far as our freshman class goes, I know we have at least one strong runner so I really think we are only going to be better than last year. I think there is going to be a lot of improvement."
Also back from last year's final starting lineup are junior Keeley Misutka, sophomore Rachel Hockenberry, senior Caroline Daggett, sophomore Maura Mlecko and senior Jenna Mlecko. That group routinely finished invites with point totals in the 40s and won the state crown with just 65 for a 41-point gap over the field.
"The mentality is still the same," Lindgren said. "I know last year we were very surprised to do as well as we did, and it was very exciting. Now that we realize what we were capable of last year, I think that was a huge motivation and huge confidence boost for us, but we are still going to work really hard.
"We are looking for another win. We are working really hard, just cheering the younger girls at practice, talking about the training and the hype coming up in the news about us maybe repeating at states. I think it really has motivated us all to work harder and do better because we want that."
Misutka, who also was a state medalist along with Hockenberry, also noted that the Tiger girls are prepared for the challenges of matching the back-to-back crowns claimed by NA's girls in 1998-99.
"I think it brings confidence," she said. "We know we can do it. It motivates us more to work hard and try to do it again."
Competitiveness helps drive program
The only blemish on a perfect season in 2018 for North Allegheny was the short trip west to the Boardman Invitational. Smack dab in the middle of a pair of dual meets and the key Red, White & Blue and PIAA Foundation races back in the Keystone state, the Tigers finished second in the boys' race and third in the girls' race in one of Ohio's largest and most competitive invites.
In looking ahead at those marquee PA meets, Neff and the senior standout on the boys' team have slightly different views of the import of the gathering at Schenley Park. The NA head coach emphasized the importance of Red, White & Blue ("To see who's going to really throw their hat in the ring to be in that top 7") and the PIAA Foundation races ("It's always a great test just to see where you are amongst everybody else").
Dan McGoey spoke highly of Saturday's RWB meet, noting it's not the be-all and end-all for this season but will be a motivator no matter the outcome.
"We don't put too much pressure on to perform at our best obviously since it's the first meet of the year," he said. "We want to see what we're capable of and run fast if we can. Just try and do our best and if we don't come out on top, it's a lot of motivation for us especially since it's just the start of the year and we know that we can do a lot more. If we do (win), it still pushes us through because we know that everyone will be chasing us down now."
Another PIAA Class AAA team title for the Tiger boys in 2019 would close the decade the same way they started it - on top in Pennsylvania. Neff also led the tradition-rich program to a boys title in 2014.
Noting that North Allegheny is "a place of high expectations and everybody wins," Neff noted that the WPIAL and PIAA sweeps in 2018 might have done more for his team's own self-esteem than altered it in the school's hallways.
"I think it proved a lot to us ourselves," he said. "I don't know that it changed the perception (at NA). I think we have a very, very good (reputation). I think they know these kids work hard and that the cross country team is something that is going to be successful because it's a product of all the hard work that the kids put in.
"I think it mattered a lot to the kids. We talk about the tradition a lot. Sometimes we put up on a pedestal those who came before us, and they should be. I think this let some of the kids see themselves (that) they're on that same level."
One who has earned a spot in the history books at North Allegheny is McGoey, who admitted to having had trouble running as a legacy and in the shadows of his brother Matt, who graduated from NA in 2015 with numerous state medals to his credit.
"It used to bother me a little bit," Dan McGoey said. "I had those big shoes to fill, but I think I have grown into that role. Knowing that there were guys before me and everyone kind of did the same thing.
"If I just keep up my training and go in with those guys, I can continue what they are doing and hopefully pass down the same motivation and mental mindset that I had to the younger guys. And hopefully they can keep the program going."
A state medalist as a sophomore in both track and XC, McGoey appeared to be headed for the top of the NA depth chart last year before established Illinois talent Zach Kinne joined the North Allegheny roster when his team moved to the Pittsburgh area during the summer. Suddenly, McGoey had a new training partner and teammate in the season-long battles that would soon play out with eventual state champion Patrick Anderson of Mt. Lebanon.
"Beforehand I was always in the top group or alone in the workouts, so having someone else there definitely helped," McGoey said of Kinne, who is now at Duke. "With Patrick Anderson breaking out basically and Zach every time there, you know (Zach's) always going to run fast, every race you had to go into it with the right mindset, no slacking around or anything.
"I kind of learned that over the last few years that you have to trust in your training, that you are training all the way through the year. No easy weeks. You can't take too much time off. You have to stay focused and trust in the training. Hopefully Coach Neff will get us fit, which he always does. It's a big patience game, I think."
In addition to McGoey, senior Stephen Nalepa and juniors Andrew Kollitz and Connor Foody return from last year's state starters. With a combined roster of 182 entered in this Saturday's 17th annual Red, White & Blue Classic, North Allegheny's coaching staff have a variety of options in selecting starting lineups for dual meets or invites as intra-squad competition is never in short supply.
"Very," Neff said when asked if his teams are competitive amongst themselves. "Cross country is a funny thing because we're a team, but we're also vying for seven varsity spots. You would think that maybe sometimes some selfishness would come out, but that has not happened here.
"The kids really buy into the idea that this is a team thing. And if you can help the team more than I can help the team, then go help the team. They are competitive to the point where they all want to be able to help the team as much as possible, but in the end, we're all Tigers and we all want the Tigers to win."
Although they admitted that one-on-one instructional time with members of the coaching staff is in short supply for obvious reasons, the Tiger runners said they would not trade the size of their roster with another school.
"I kind of like the big team feel," McGoey said. "I think everyone is there for a reason. We all push each other. Coach Neff always says it's from the back guy, the last guy. If he pushes it, and the front guy pushes it, everyone is pushing in between, they are all pushing each other.
"I think it helps a lot to have the numbers. It might be a bit intimidating for other teams, but I think it's great. There is a lot of good atmosphere at practices and in meets so I like it."
Nalepa also stressed all the positives from being part of such an incredibly large XC program that also is not short on success.
"In practice, it's a little overwhelming, but once you get to know the guys in your line ... Throughout the season when everybody starts coming to practice every day, you start to get to know even some of the guys who aren't super fast," he said. "You still get to be friends with them. I'm sure when we roll up to a meet when we have to bring four buses, it's just intimidating to other teams. And they're like, 'Wow, we wish we could have that many cross country kids.' It's almost a little bit of a psychology factor as well.
"Just the sheer size is intimidating, and I wouldn't have it any other way."