North Allegheny runners elevate their game, sweep PIAA cross country titles

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Saturday, November 14, 2020 | 11:01 AM


There’s an old theory that Western Pennsylvania cross country runners are better on hilly courses while their counterparts from the east thrive on fast, flat stretches.

North Allegheny coach John Neff doesn’t know if that’s necessarily true.

But this is certain: His athletes run a lot of hills while training in North Park, so they’re quite comfortable on the hilly second mile on the PIAA championship course in Hershey.

The girls team surged ahead in that elevated stretch Nov. 7 to win a third consecutive PIAA Class 3A title, and the boys conquered the hills to win their second state title in three years.

“We really started getting to work on the hills on the back of the course,” Neff said. “The second mile is a traditionally challenging, hilly part. We do a lot of that training, so we thought we’d be able to excel there. And we did.”

Both wins were decisive.

The North Allegheny girls won with 59 points, State College (73) was second and West Chester Henderson (75) was third. With 49 points, the boys finished 27 ahead of La Salle College and Downingtown West, who tied for second at 76. There were nine teams in the boys’ race and seven in the girls’.

“The celebration was great,” Neff said. “It was as high as any we’ve ever had. You could tell they were proud of themselves. There was a lot of celebration and a lot of relief that we finally got there.”

NA senior Keeley Mistuka finished second among runners vying for the girls team title, followed by freshman Eva Kynaston (eighth), junior Maura Mlecko (12th), sophomore Alexa Sundgren (13th), junior Rachel Hockenberry (24th), senior Mazzie Standish (27th) and freshman Erin McGoey (35th).

Mistuka was fifth overall among all runners competing for the individual title.

NA junior Scott Nalepa led the boys team with a third-place finish among team-title runners. Junior Jack Hickel was seventh, sophomore Gregory Kossuth was 11th, junior Graham Wolfe was 13th, senior Connor Foody was 15th, freshman Michael Gauntner was 16th and senior Andrew Kollitz was 18th.

Napela won his heat and placed eighth among all runners, including those competing for the individual titles. Neff called the race Napela’s best effort of the year.

“If someone were to look at it on paper, they would have said that isn’t going to happen,” Neff said of Napela’s heat win. “I had a feeling that was going to happen, and I think Scott had a feeling that was going to happen, too.”

This year’s PIAA championship meet was divided into multiple heats to adhere to covid-19 restrictions. It was the culmination of an unusual season, but it ended in a familiar way for North Allegheny. The Tigers also swept the PIAA Class 3A titles in 2018.

Overall, this was the 14th state title for the boys team and sixth for the girls.

“The whole season was always a mystery – are we going to be able to continue on? – feeling like the other shoe was about to fall,” Neff said. “The kids focused and controlled what they were able to control. We ended up being able to finish it off with an exclamation mark.”

North Allegheny was the only WPIAL school to win a team title this season. The Mohawk girls finished second in Class A.

According to RunHigh.com scoring, the North Allegheny boys were in fifth place less than a half-mile into the course and fourth at the 1-mile mark.

At 2 miles, they had the lead.

The team competition was divided into two heats, so not everyone was on the course at the same time, but the NA boys were racing head-to-head with La Salle College.

“It was a real dogfight in there,” Neff said. “It was a different kind of race than the girls just because they had the kids that they knew they had to beat in their race. … If we put a bunch of our pack in front of their No. 3 runner, we’d be in a pretty good spot. The way it ended up was way better than that.”

North Allegheny had seven runners in the Top 20. La Salle had three.

The North Allegheny girls were racing against the clock. Their top two competitors, West Chester Henderson and State College, ran in an earlier heat.

According to RunHigh.com scoring, West Chester Henderson was one point ahead at the 2½-kilometer mark (1.55 miles) but North Allegheny was ahead for good at 2 miles.

The Tigers made their move in the hilly section of the course, but that was as much about timing as it was terrain.

“We like to have a strategy where we’re really moving up in that second mile of the course,” Neff said. “It was a doubly good thing for us because that is the hilly section and we’re good at hills.”

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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