Defending WPIAL, PIAA champion North Allegheny cross country teams off to fast start

Saturday, September 16, 2023 | 11:01 AM

There’s a common cliché in sports that says success breeds success. And in the WPIAL, you need to look no further than the North Allegheny cross country program.

Last season marked the fifth year in a row that both the boys’ and girls’ teams claimed the WPIAL title. They have also carried that success into the state competition with the boys bringing home three straight championships, while the girls have collected the last five state crowns.

In the 15th year under coach John Neff, the cycle of prosperity will continue as the Tigers filter in new leaders and young talent to replace those who have claimed championships of the past.

“Every year, everyone wonders where you will be. You lose kids, kids come in, so how will that dynamic work out?” Neff said.

“We are blessed with kids that want to come out and want to be a part of this. Everybody wants to be a part of something great. There’s a culture here that people want to be a part of.”

With 85 runners on the boys’ team and 65 on the girls’ side, the Tigers are stacked up for another run at success.

For Neff — who received three coach of the year awards following last season — its humbling to see the willingness of his athletes to come out and be a part of something exciting.

“We have a great group of kids,” he said. “They want to come out and work. It’s that work ethic and expectation, positive peer pressure that makes everybody work a little more and be more serious.

“If kids come and are positive with it, its not like work at all. There’s no strain, there’s no feeling like you’re weary after you do it when kids come here for the right reasons. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been doing this every day and it doesn’t feel like work.”

After all the offseason preparation, North Allegheny started in stride racking up more achievements as it swept the Class 3A titles at its first meet of the fall, the Red, White & Blue Classic at White Oak Park.

The girls’ team captured gold with a score of 37 points — a strong 38 points better than second. Likewise, the boys finished first with a score of 93.

Neff echoed a similar sentiment for both teams as he feels they are in a good spot to start the season.

“It’s great to win, but we weren’t really focusing on that; we’re focusing on where we need to be at that time of the season. The goal is to always come out of that meet with a lot of confidence, and that’s exactly what we did.”

The top three finishers in the girls’ race belonged to the Tigers. Twins Wren and Robin Kucler were nearly side by side as Wren took home the crown with a time of 17 minutes, 45 seconds while Robin followed behind to finish second in 18:03.

“They are what happens when talent and hard work comes together,” Neff said. “They know they’ve been blessed with a lot of talent. We can all see that they really have the work ethic.

Rounding out the top three was senior Eva Kynaston as she crossed the finish line in 18:23.

Last season, Kynaston received second-team all-state honors. Wren also was highly recognized individually as she earned a spot on the first-team and was named the Sophomore of the Year by PA MileSplit.

As a senior, Kynaston will be one of the leaders for the girls.

“You can’t really overstate how much her leadership means, how much her confidence and poise at meets and workouts mean,” Neff said. “Fellow senior Erin McGoey shows confidence and poise as well.”

The boys’ team is led by a group of upperclassmen that have already shown their capabilities early in the year.

Junior Jack Bertram paced the Tigers at their opening meet in 15:23 to finish second. Last year, he was named first-team all-state and the Sophomore of the Year by PA MileSplit.

“(He) is lights out for us,” Neff said. “He’s very confident and poised, and he really sets the expectations.”

Seniors James Behrend and Michael Gauntner followed suit to round out the top three for the Tigers. The seniors placed sixth and 18th, respectively, at the Red, White & Blue Classic.

“They’ve been contributing at a high level on our teams their entire careers,” Neff said. “They both have their eyes set on great senior seasons, and that’s happening.”

North Allegheny’s course to another set of WPIAL and state titles is already underway with its strong showing at White Oak Park and another meet victory after a section sweep against Mars on Sept. 12.


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