After strong section season, North Allegheny runners prepare for championship meets

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Saturday, October 10, 2020 | 11:01 AM


When North Allegheny’s runners walked to the starting line wearing masks for their early-September scrimmage, coach John Neff wasn’t sure what to expect from cross country season under covid-19 conditions.

Looking back, it all went fairly well.

“It was not as different as I was afraid of, to be honest with you,” said Neff, noting the runners didn’t have to race in masks. “We were always worried that we were going to get bad news. But in the end, I was so pleasantly surprised that we were able to have basically what we’ve always had.”

That familiarity included two strong regular seasons from North Allegheny’s teams. The boys went 7-0 in section meets, and the girls finished 6-1.

After a hurried three-week season, the schedule entered a bit of lull before the Tri-State meet Oct. 20-21 and the WPIAL championship Oct. 28-29, both at White Oak Park in White Oak.

Regardless, the NA runners won’t be idle.

The regular-season meets are what the season’s all about, Neff said, but they don’t leave much time during the week for the grinding workouts that make teams better.

“Now we have that time,” he said. “We always really enjoy this time of being able to get two to three workouts in a week and get into the grind of it. That might not sound good to the typical person, but the cross country types out there know what I’m talking about.”

NA senior Keeley Misutka, who finished fifth in the state last fall, leads the girls team. The Tigers are the defending WPIAL and PIAA team champions.

Misutka placed fourth in the Class 3A girls race at the Red, White and Blue Invitational Sept. 19 on the same course as the WPIAL championship.

“She’s somebody who has just improved every year,” Neff said. “She was good freshman year, but she just shows that if you can stay healthy and continue to work hard every day and do the little things right, you can be very, very good. She’s established herself as one of the better kids in the WPIAL.”

Junior Scott Nalepa, who placed 17th at states, leads the boys. He placed second in Class 3A boys at the Red, White and Blue Invitational, one of four NA runners to place in the Top 6 that day.

“(Nalepa) is another kid who’s supremely talented but also is willing to put in the work and do the small things right,” Neff said.

Junior Jackson Hickel finished third, sophomore Gregory Kossuth was fourth and junior Graham Wolfe placed sixth at the Red, White and Blue. Junior Maura Mlecko was ninth in the girls event.

“Those kids aren’t alone,” Neff said. “There’s a whole host of kids top to bottom, even some ninth graders. We’re going for these goals by committee. That’s a nice thing.”

One significant covid-related change was the number of runners competing in section meets. In years past, North Allegheny would bring almost its entire roster and let them all run, Neff said. That’s not an option with social distance protocols in place.

“The WPIAL put a limit of 12 kids per race, and that’s no fault of theirs,” he said. “That’s always been a National Federation suggestion. This just forced us to go with that suggestion.”

The section schedule included three tri-meets and one head-to-head race in a three-week span.

“We’re used to having about 100 boys and 100 girls,” he said. “They would all run in the same race or at least run two races over the course of a day. Now we had to pick a varsity 12 that we would go to races with, and we would pick a junior varsity 12. The rest of them, they weren’t able to race interscholastically.”

Those not included weren’t forgotten. North Allegheny scheduled in-house meets and scheduled some practice-squad races with schools left in similar positions.

“It ended up being a pretty good solution to a rough situation,” Neff said.

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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