Above: Kucler leads the North Allegheny Girls at NXR - Photo by Kyle Brazeil
There were plenty of knowns and even some unknowns for North Allegheny's girls team as John Neff's Tigers hit the road once again as the Wexford Flats for this year's Nike Cross Nationals Northeast Regional.
For the second consecutive year, the Tigers made the trek to the challenging layout in Bowdoin Park to see if they could extend a championship-winning season into December and to the West Coast for the Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Ore.
"Definitely having been there last year made the day feel a lot less stressful for the girls," Neff said of the NXR meet. "We were able to approach it as just another meet."
Making the familiar trip to Wappingers Falls, NY, the Tigers also knew they would have their No. 1 runner, Wren Kucler, back in the lineup after a months-long absence because of a stress-related foot injury. Kucler, who started the season with a trio of sub-18:00 performances, last raced in a triangular on Sept. 19.
She was cleared to toe the line at the PIAA State Final at the beginning of the month as the Tigers went for and captured their sixth consecutive Class AAA title. However, Neff and his staff decided not to rush her back into competition.
Despite the lengthy layoff, Wren Kucler moved to the front and led the field through 2.5 kilometers in 9:03.6. Robin Kucler and Eva Kynaston followed her through and North Allegheny's trio positioned themselves in the Top 5, posting NA second in the team standings at that point. Led by freshman Paige Sheppard, New Jersey powerhouse Union Catholic was credited with 55 points and a 10-point edge on the PIAA champs.
When all was said and done, North Allegheny and Union Catholic flipped spots from a year ago, as the freshman-led Vikings claimed the top spot with 54 points to 82 for the Tigers. Sheppard edged Mount Saint Joseph Academy's Ella Woehlcke for the win, 18:12.2 to 18:13.2.
Woehlcke nearly stole the show, and snagged the first individual qualifying spot. Pennsylvania finished with three athletes in the top five. Lewisburg's Baylee Espinosa finished in 12th with an 19:04.6. She narrowly missed out on an individual bid.
Top 5 Individuals (Full Results)
|Union Catholic Reg. HS
|Mount Saint Joseph Academy
|Middletown South HS
Wren Kucler again led the Tigers, finishing third overall in 18:34.7, while senior and Penn State signee Eva Kynaston was fifth across the line in 18:42.8. Junior Robin Kucler was 14th overall in 19:07.4, while senior and Delaware signee Erin McGoey was 21st in 19:26.4. Junior Camille Swirsding (20:32.4), Elizabeth Pizon (20:32.9) and Kendall Lucas (21:43.8) finished things out for NA.
Union Catholic's scoring five averaged 19:06.2, while North Allegheny's 19:16.8 average was enough to grab the final auto qualifying spot ahead of Champlain Valley XC and its 98 points and 19:35.4 average. A year ago, the Tigers averaged 19:20 to run away with the regional title and their first-ever trip to Portland.
"It means a lot not just to these girls but to the whole program," Neff said of qualifying for the national meet for a second time and consecutively. "It's great to see that those among us are doing the work, buying in and rising to the top of our sport. It gives the younger kids a model to pattern their behavior after, and it gives them encouragement that if they are dedicated the sky's the limit."
North Allegheny will be joined by 21 other teams that advanced from the eight regional races and the at-large selection process. The girls' field this coming Saturday will be rounded out with 50 individual qualifiers from across the country.