North Allegheny’s Mlecko steps into PIAA cross country history books as 4-time team champion

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Saturday, November 20, 2021 | 11:01 AM


There was a time when Maura Mlecko was the freshman on North Allegheny’s cross country team, running at the state championship meet in Hershey for the first time. But like runners on that course, four years can go by fast.

As a senior surrounded by freshmen, Mlecko was back in Hershey this month helping North Allegheny win the PIAA team title for the fourth time in her four years, putting Mlecko in historic territory as a four-time team champion.

Only three other girls statewide have achieved that feat in PIAA history.

“I have all four of them hanging up in my room right now,” she said of her gold medals. “I will definitely keep these for a long time.”

Mlecko completed her collection Nov. 8 when the North Allegheny girls won the PIAA Class 3A team title with a dominant run, outscoring the second-place team 62-149.

The Tigers are only the third girls team in state history to win four in a row, and they’re the first to do so in the largest classification. Mlecko was the only NA runner to compete in all four PIAA victories, and she scored for her team every time.

This year, she was a lone senior in a championship lineup that had four freshmen and two sophomores.

“The team matters to her,” NA coach John Neff said. “She’s always aware of the younger kids looking at her, and she doesn’t want to let them down. She’s constantly giving them advice. She’s a gem. She will be missed next year.”

The PIAA has crowned girls cross country champions since 1974. Yet, the only other girls to contribute points to four PIAA team titles were Wyomissing sisters Amy and Debbie Huss in 1999-2002. Perkiomen Valley’s Joanne Kehs also won four in a row in 1978-81, but she scored only twice in her team’s four championship meets.

Cross country teams enter seven runners and score points for the first five finishers.

Mlecko was never her team’s fastest runner, but her consistency in the state championships was remarkable. Mlecko placed 19th overall this year among 140 runners competing for the team title on the hilly 5-kilometer course. She finished 12th last season, 28th in 2019 and 23rd in 2018.

“She brings it all to the table,” Neff said. “Obviously, she’s very, very talented — a lot of God-given talent — but at the same time she’s willing to work hard. She never misses practice. And when she’s there, she’s always giving 100%. There’s never a day where she’s going to slack. Never.”

North Allegheny had seven runners all finish in the top 40 this year. Ahead of Mlecko was NA sophomore Eva Kynaston (third overall) and freshmen sisters Wren Kucler (fourth) and Robin Kucler (12th). Finishing behind Mlecko (19th) was sophomore Erin McGoey (24th) and freshmen Sydney Kuder (28th) and Camille Swirsding (38th).

Mlecko said she can remember the feeling of being a first-time runner in the state meet.

“As a freshman, I had amazing seniors who led me through it,” Mlecko said. “They made sure I was comfortable on the team and were so welcoming. As I got older, I took on that role. Especially senior year, since there were six freshmen. I made sure they were all comfortable with us, and they all knew we were there to support them.”

Mlecko ran the course in 20 minutes, 28 seconds her freshman year. This year she broke the 20-minute mark by nine seconds, an achievement Mlecko celebrated. She’d crossed at exactly 20 minutes as a sophomore. Her time as a junior was 20 minutes, 39 seconds.

“I was really happy because breaking 20 on that course was a really big deal,” she said. “My sophomore year I ran 20 flat, and I wanted to break that barrier.”

Mlecko said she may run for a club team in college, if that’s an option, but doesn’t plan to pursue intercollegiate competition. So the state championship meet with her NA teammates was maybe her final cross country run for a school team.

She tried to not dwell on that idea in Hershey.

“I didn’t want to think about that,” Mlecko said. “I knew if I thought about that, it would bring the whole day down a little. So I was just focused on my teammates and how we accomplished winning states again.”

Mlecko first started running cross country as a seventh grader, following in the footsteps of her father and an older sister.

“I can still remember meeting her as this young kid,” Neff said. “It’s almost like the next day, but she’s a senior and we’re having this conversation about her and all of these championship teams. It’s crazy to think how quickly it happens.”

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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