New cast of characters earns more championship gold for North Allegheny cross country

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Saturday, November 5, 2022 | 11:01 AM


North Allegheny swept the big-school WPIAL cross country team titles this fall for the fifth year in a row, adding two more banners to a long list of league championships.

But coach John Neff points to another list that’s also remarkably long — the number of runners who’ve worn a Tigers uniform in those races. Nineteen boys and 18 girls have run for North Allegheny in the WPIAL meet over the past five years.

Combined, 29 NA runners have earned points in those wins.

“It never gets old because it’s always a new group of kids,” Neff said. “There are a lot of different names. It’s not just the same kids winning it again and again.”

Teams start seven runners and score the top five finishers.

North Allegheny’s sophomore stars garnered much of the attention this fall since Jack Bertram placed second overall among WPIAL Class 3A boys and Wren Kucler was fourth in the girls race. The two burst onto the WPIAL scene a year ago as fantastic freshmen.

But some runners have to wait their turn.

Neff pointed to the determination of Grace Rowley and Jackson Pajak, two seniors who made their WPIAL championship debuts this fall. Each posted a top 10 finish. Pajak was fifth in the boys race, and Rowley was eighth in the girls.

Pajak won the junior varsity race at the TSTCA championship last season but had always considered himself more of a track athlete, Neff said. Rowley was part of NA’s cross country program since elementary school but hadn’t cracked the high school varsity roster until her senior year.

Neff described them both as “over the moon” following their WPIAL championship runs Oct. 27 at Cal (Pa.).

“That’s the kind of kid you’re really proud of,” he said. “We’re proud of everybody, but the message (their success) sends is, ‘If you pay your dues and you keep doing the right thing, it might take a long time, but you’ll get there.’”

North Allegheny defended both WPIAL titles with ease. The boys defeated second-place South Fayette, 31-145, and the girls finished well ahead of Mt. Lebanon, 39-107.

The NA teams each had four runners finish in the top 10.

The girls were led by Wren Kucler in fourth place, junior Eva Kynaston in sixth, junior Erin McGoey in seventh, Rowley in eighth and sophomore Robin Kucler in 14th.

The girls team’s sixth and seventh runners were sophomores Kendall Lucas (20th) and Camille Swirsding (25th).

Among the boys, Bertram was second overall, senior Greg Kossuth was fourth, Pajak was fifth, junior James Behrend was eighth and senior Nicholas Betler was 12th.

Just behind them but not scoring were junior Michael Gauntner in 13th and senior Joey Rempe in 17th.

Along with Pajak and Rowley, Behrend and Betler also were first-time scorers at WPIALs, a thrill more than two dozen NA runners have now felt over the past five years.

“It’s neat because it’s why we all do this,” Neff said. “We do this so kids can have a great experience and have something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. I feel happy because a bunch of kids were able to have a first-class experience.”

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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