Freshmen runners help North Allegheny boys, girls again sweep WPIAL titles

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Saturday, November 6, 2021 | 11:01 AM


The starting line at a cross country championship can be a stressful scene for first-timers, yet North Allegheny’s freshmen clearly weren’t fazed.

With five ninth-graders making their WPIAL championship debuts, the NA boys and girls swept the Class 3A team titles Oct. 28 at Cal (Pa.). In fact, two of those freshmen also won bronze medals individually.

“Do we have ninth-graders? Yes,” NA coach John Neff said. “But nobody’s running like a freshman. They are in an unbelievable spot mind-wise, school-wise and emotionally. They are poised and confident.”

NA’s Jack Bertram placed third in the boys race in 16 minutes, 44 seconds, and Wren Kucler took third for the girls in 18:55. They were making their WPIAL championship debuts, and both were chasing after seniors headed to NCAA Division I colleges.

Moon senior Mia Cochran, an Arkansas commit, won the Class 3A girls race. Bertram finished behind two Butler boys including champion C.J. Singleton, a senior and Notre Dame commit.

Bertram was the only freshman boy in the top 25.

“There are great big Division I kids that Jack is racing, and he doesn’t care,” Neff said. “He respects them, but he’s not going to automatically say, ‘Well, you’re a senior at the top of your game. You’re going to beat me.’

“It’s not going to be that.”

The WPIAL team titles were the fourth in a row for both the NA boys and girls. Those championship streaks seem likely to continue with so much youth in the lineup. Bertram and Kucler weren’t the only NA runners near the front — or the only freshmen.

Senior Ryan Podnar placed sixth among the boys.

In the girls race, NA sophomore Eva Kynaston was fourth and freshman Robin Kucler was sixth. The gap between NA’s top three girls runners was only 39 seconds on the 5 kilometer course. The Kucler sisters were the only freshmen girls to finish in the top 10.

Kynaston improved upon her eighth-place finish from last year.

“Wren, Eva and Robin were three peas in a pod for most of the race,” Neff said. “Wren was out front a little bit more, but she was in a spot where Eva and Robin could definitely see her. When you’re going into battle with your friends, that’s comforting.”

The North Allegheny lineup has youth but also some veteran leaders. Among them is senior Maura Mlecko, who finished 14th and won her fourth WPIAL team title. The boys team had four seniors among its seven runners.

“If you have those seniors out there who have done it before, it’s not scary for the freshmen,” Neff said. “They have the same jersey on as you and they want you to succeed, unlike the kids who have different jerseys.”

Two other NA freshmen, Sydney Kuder (26th place) and Camille Swirsding (32nd), also finished well in this year’s meet. Sophomore Erin McGoey was 22nd after finishing 54th last year as a freshman.

The NA girls outscored second-place Pine-Richland, 49-135.

The boys team had all seven runners finish among the top 25 in a race with more than 200 competitors. Bertram was third, Podnar placed sixth, sophomore Michael Gauntner was 12th, senior Caleb Schall was 14th, junior Gregory Kossuth was 16th, senior Graham Wolfe was 19th and senior Jackson Hickel was 23rd.

They combined to outscore second-place Butler, 51-86.

“The kids did a great job and came through on the day of,” Neff said. “It was a culmination of a lot of hard work along the way.”

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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