The Tigers are Taking the Hunt to Oregon
Sports prognostication is one of America's new favorite pastimes. And whether it's a friendly wager for a can of pop or a Vegas-style parlay, John Neff was not about to hear any crystal ball predictions about how high his North Allegheny girls XC team might fly heading into the summer of 2022.
"If you were asking me about this in June, I would have said we were going to have a good team, but ... it would have been hard to quantify how much improvement we could have gotten from everybody the way we did," said Neff, who is about to wrap up his 14th season as head XC coach at NA. "Contributors like Grace (Rowley) and Erin (McGoey) who were good but made a big jump from last year.
"Eva (Kynaston) was coming back from an injury, and Robin and Wren (Kucler) were also coming back from injuries at the end of track. Man, there were a lot of question marks back in June, but it all came together. If you had said what do you think the chances are of doing what we did ... I know these girls and I know how much they're going to fight, but I don't know if I would have seen this coming."
The "this", of course, is North Allegheny's 23-point performance in dominating the Team Regionals Northeast Championship on Saturday and becoming the Keystone state's first girls team to advance to the national team final since 2015. The ladies from northwestern Allegheny County also are just the second NA team to have a spot on the starting line at the Team Nationals finale, joining the 2008 boys team that helped bring to a close the tenure of coaching legend Jim LeDonne.
"I thought it was pretty amazing what the girls were able to do," said Neff, referring to the low score and 53.5-second 1-5 spread. "I don't know that anybody could have predicted that it would have been quite that good, but I did tell the girls more than once, I was even saying this on Friday night, I know we're better right now than we were when we ran at state. And they showed that that was true."
In Hershey, the Tigers walked away with their fifth consecutive state title after posting 60 points, winning by 58 with a 1-5 split of 76.1 seconds. The first four across the line for NA were state medalists.
Neff believes the Tigers' final meet in October - the WPIAL championship at CalU's Roadman Park - served his young team well in preparation for the trip to the NE regional.
"I remember when we shifted (WPIALs) out to Cal, I (thought) this is a lot like Bowdoin Park, and it is," Neff remarked. "The first mile or so rolls a little bit, but it's pretty flat. And then after that you get into a hill. The difference is at Cal, it goes down and then up. You run the last mile flat and you loop past the start line. So I used that analogy a lot and just said, 'We were successful at Cal. We can be successful at Bowdoin, too."
The last time a Pennsylvania girls team walked away from Bowdoin Park as a Team Nationals qualifier was in 2015 as Pennsbury claimed the regional title with 59 points. In duplicating the Falcons' feat from seven years ago, the NA top 7 positioned itself toward the front of the field. How well the Tigers were doing throughout the 5K came initially as a surprise to Neff, as the coaching staff's tracking of the race was hampered by poor cell phone reception.
"Some people must have had better carriers than me because I couldn't get any kind of reception," Neff lamented. "I had no idea what I was going to see ... at 2K. Here they come, and I see Wren ... and I look back about 10 seconds more and here comes Eva and here comes Erin and Grace and Robin, and I thought, 'Wow.' We emphasize getting out ... and I thought we really got out great."
Although Neff said qualifying for Team Nationals and winning the regional "is a thing that can let the kids believe that what we are doing is working and the time ... is worth it," it will not change the program's focus in the future and wasn't a priority in 2022.
"We take that WPIAL championship and that state championship very seriously," Neff stated emphatically. "We're not going to sacrifice anything for those two meets. If there is still something left to go up to a regional meet, then so be it. The WPIAL and state meets are really what we are shooting for every time."
The Line Up
Robin Kucler - Sophomore
Favorite Pre-Race Breakfast: Oatmeal.
Favorite XC Workout: 10x500s
Least Favorite Workout: 2K loops
Favorite Coach Neff Saying: "Finish like your hair's on fire!"
Favorite Moment During 2022 season: Gathering at the finish line with the rest of my teammates at Team Regionals.
Coach Neff on Robin: "Robin has consistent hard work, consistent positivity. She smiles at everything. How are you going to be negative when you are standing beside someone who has positive leaking out of them? It's contagious, and it's a good thing for the group."
Wren Kucler - Sophomore
Favorite XC workout: 10x500s at 5K pace.
Least favorite workout: 1Ks at the hill loop in the woods.
Favorite Coach Neff Saying: "Go get them, hammer!!!!"
Favorite Moment During 2022 Season: Team Regionals when I got to race with my team, I placed second, and the team placed first. At the finish line we were all excited that we qualified to go to Team Nationals in Oregon.
Coach Neff on Wren: "Wren's performance at regional was just phenomenal. To go up there and get second place in the entire region as a 10th grader, to be in that same race for a couple miles with JoJo Quarzo was an inspiring thing. She can stay calm and the rest of the girls know that they are being taken care of. She really anchors the team."
Camille Swirsding - Sophomore
Favorite XC workout: Tempos
Least favorite workout: 1k loops in the woods.
Favorite Coach Neff saying: 'You look like a million bucks!"
Favorite moment during 2022 season: Winning States and Regionals.
Coach Neff on Camille: "Camille likes to joke around and keep it light at practice. She's funny and sarcastic with the girls and always keeps it real. She is a consistent hard worker, but she's somebody that says you should have fun with it. 'Why are we doing it if it's no fun?"
Grace Rowley - Senior
Favorite pre-race meal: Honey Nut Cheerios.
Favorite XC workout: 10x500 on goal 5k pace.
Least favorite workout: 4-5x1K uphill.
Favorite Coach Neff saying: "Git!"
Favorite moment during 2022 season: Hugging the rest of the team at the regional finish-line, knowing we won.
Coach Neff on Grace: "Grace just took a little bit longer to get to her highest level. She's always been working, she always has been a decent runner for us but never really that varsity contributor and especially a varsity contributor on one of the best teams we've ever had. She's one that shows that if you will put your best foot forward every day, that you can succeed."
Erin McGoey - Junior
Favorite pre-race meal: Spaghetti and meatballs
Favorite XC workout: 800, 2x1600, 2x300
Least favorite workout: 1K hill circuits
Favorite Coach Neff saying: "Let's go, you big hammers!"
Favorite moment during 2022 season: Regionals
Coach Neff on Erin: "Erin is cognizant of her brothers' success and what they have meant to the program, but she wants to be her own person, like we all do. Erin is unflappable. We give a run score every day at practice, 1-5. Erin gives a 4 every day. She is that consistent grinder, hard worker."
Favorite XC workout: 6x4x2 repeats
Least favorite workout: 1K hill circuits
Favorite Coach Neff saying: "What do you say, Kendall?!"
Favorite moment during 2022 season: Winning regionals and states
Coach Neff on Kendall: "Kendall is everybody's best friend. If you interviewed the girls individually, they would all say that they are Kendall's favorite. She treats everyone with a ton of kindness, she treats everyone the way they ought to be treated."
Favorite XC workout: 10x500s
Least favorite workout: hilly 5x1Ks
Favorite Coach Neff saying that he shouts during a race: "Go NA!" right after the gun of each race!
Favorite moment during 2022 season: The finish of regionals when we'd found out we'd won!
Coach Neff on Eva: "Eva is a leader as good as you're going to get. She is just a poised, confident kid and very motherly to the whole group. Always checking in with everybody. She is the steering wheel of the ship, for sure."