North Allegheny Stays The Course In Pursuit Of 3-Peat

A thorough review of the course offerings at North Allegheny's middle and high schools will not turn up any Cross Country 101 or How to Be a Harrier 2.0 classes.

There's no mistaking, however, that student-athletes signing up to be a part of John Neff's program are quickly immersed in the history and pathway to success of the perennial WPIAL and PIAA distance power in northern Allegheny County.

"It's something that you pick up on quickly and early," the veteran track and XC coach said. "When you get around these kids, you know that there's no tolerance for being lazy. There's no tolerance from me with laziness, but there's no tolerance from the kids for being lazy either. This is a place where we are going to do everything as close to perfect as we can.

"We're not perfect, but everybody, no matter who you are, can get as close to perfect as possible. The young kids realize that that's what the expectation is. They even get that in our middle school program. I always say it that one of our biggest strengths is it's really a (grade) 7 through 12 program. There's excellent things going on in 7th and 8th grade here. ... our middle school knows that this is a place where you expect to work hard and you expect to succeed."

And in the year of change that is 2020, Neff's girls varsity squad is looking to keep things status quo in Class AAA by claiming a third consecutive PIAA crown. A three-peat has happened only once before in NA XC annals as the 1960-62 boys claimed the single-class state title in the final three years that it was contested, while the Villa Maria girls (2014-16) are the only team to win three PIAAs in a row since Class A was added to the meet in November 2012.

"It gives us a lot of confidence and motivation to just push harder this year to get the third one," said Keeley Misutka, the lone senior in the projected top 7 starting the year for NA. "If we could do it, I think that would be something really special, but we try not to think about it too much especially with the new girls and a bunch of underclassmen. We don't want to put any pressure on them. We just want them to go out there and race as hard as they can and reach their full potential."

In addition to its current win streak in Hershey, North Allegheny's girls also won a pair of consecutive AAA titles in 1998 and '99. The NA girls also were the best big school team back in 1975.

"Obviously, we lost three amazing seniors last year in Hannah (Lindgren), Caroline (Daggett) and Jenna (Mlecko) who are just great leaders, always positive and very encouraging," Misutka said of the trio that contributed to both of the recent PIAA championships. "So I definitely have big shoes to fill this year. I'm just trying to encourage all the girls to push hard, to step out of their comfort zone a little bit."

Interview Above: The NA girls after their second straight PIAA Class AAA state title last fall.

Misutka is a two-time state XC medalist and the No. 2 runner during North Allegheny's current AAA state reign. She will look to improve on her 12th and 11th place finishes, respectively, and take over the top spot previously held by Lindgren, a three-time state XC medalist who is now running for the Delaware Blue Hens.

"During the workouts and during practice, she'd get me mentally ready," Misutka said of part of Lindgren's influence on her. "She'd encourage me, she'd motivate me, always say these positive things around me.

"I almost felt like a little sister to her. I always looked up to her. She's like a role model for me."

In addition to Misutka, juniors Rachel Hockenberry and Maura Mlecko and sophomore Alexa Sundgren return from the seven-runner lineup that topped State College Area by 15 points for the 2019 AAA title.

Several freshmen are expected to compete for the remaining spots in NA's varsity lineup for the season opener against neighboring Mars on Sept. 15.

"I think our girls are very, very focused right now," Neff said. "They know that we can be a very good team, and they want to live up to that. It's one thing to have won those championships, but this is a new team and these are new girls and they all want to get a chance to prove themselves. So there is going to be hunger that way, too."

In the age of COVID-19

Because of COVID-19, athletes and teams everywhere have had to adjust their practice routine in advance of a fall 2020 season. With a roster as large as North Allegheny's has been in recent years, no practice or dual meet is routine when the high school lineup approaches 200 runners.

"We try to talk about what's important today, what can we do today," Neff said of messaging to his athletes heading into a season filled with so many unknowns that are beyond their control. "We know that whether the end of the season is normal or if it's slightly changed, that wouldn't really change what we're going to do today. What we do today is coming from what we did yesterday.

"We just keep going with day by day and saying, 'At this point in the season, we would always do this. At this point of the season, if we do this, we know we'll be successful.' That's what we focus on. We generally don't talk about the end of the season at this point anyways so it really hasn't been that different for us."

Early season workouts have been on a rolling schedule, with Neff and his staff determining equal-ability groups of 14 to adhere to NA's limitation on group gatherings for practice along with mask and temperature-taking protocols.

"It's been pretty difficult, but I think we are taking the best out of the situation,"said Hockenberry, who finished 17th as a freshman in the 2018 final before injuries slowed her progress last fall. "It's been hard not being able to see some of the other girls on the team, but this group has been really amazing to train with and we've been pushing each other. I think we've been making the best of it."

On the heels of an outdoor track season that never happened, Neff said there were benefits to be gained from 2020 track being a complete loss.

"I felt like the spring was all the positives and none of the negatives because sometimes it ends up being when you are going deep into WPIALs and into state, it's a lot of workouts, it's a lot of races (and) it beats you up," the NA coach said. "We didn't have that part, but we still did the same training that we would have done so the workouts were there.

"Our speed reserve right now is great. Our anaerobic energy system is great right now. We got everything out of track that we would have gotten out of it, but we didn't get beat up. Plus with not being able to have track, we got real hungry. Normally you get to the end of track and you get satisfied or you get angry because you weren't where you wanted to be. We didn't get a chance to do either one of those. It stayed as the great unknown and so now everybody is even more hungry for a good cross country season."

With the start of the competitive season pushed back because of the global pandemic, the Tigers' 2020 schedule will be lacking one of their big early season meets as Red, White & Blue and the Boardman (Ohio) Invitational are the same weekend. NA will run at RWB on Sept. 19 at White Oak Park and then head to Hershey on Sept. 26 for the PIAA Foundation XC Invitational.

"Red, White & Blue is really big just because it sets the tone for everything that you're doing," Neff said when asked to identify the most important meet on the 2020 schedule. "I have been doing this long enough that I know what good looks like and I know what average looks like.

"Both of our teams are going to be very good this year, but they don't know that. They need to buy into that. It does matter what they know. They need to realize that they are a good team, and they can run with anybody in the state. You don't want that positive affirmation down the road too long. You want them to know they're good right away so Red, White & Blue is big for us."