Strong freshman class adds to lineup for defending PIAA champion North Allegheny cross country teams

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Saturday, September 18, 2021 | 11:01 AM


When your boys and girls teams are both defending WPIAL and PIAA cross country champions, what do you do this fall for an encore?

“I don’t know how to top it exactly,” said North Allegheny coach John Neff, “but we’re going to try to match it for sure.”

Many of the runners from last year’s state championship lineup are back, but the Tigers also have a talented freshman class joining them this fall. That freshman class includes talented ninth-grader Jack Bertram, who ran some of the nation’s fastest track times as a junior high standout last school year.

Now a varsity runner, Bertram won at the Red, White & Blue Classic on Sept. 11 in White Oak, leading the way as four NA boys finished among the Top 10. The NA girls had three Top 10 runners, including freshmen twin sisters Wren and Robin Kucler. Fellow freshman Sydney Kuder was 18th and freshman Camille Swirsding was 26th.

“It’s a great situation to be in,” Neff said. “The future is always as strong as your freshman class coming in. We feel really lucky this year. It’s a really strong freshman class this year for both sides.”

Yet, Neff doesn’t need to rely entirely on his freshmen.

Returning senior Scott Nalepa placed eighth in the state last fall and leads an experienced boys roster. Graham Wolfe, another returning senior, finished 35th at states, and junior Greg Kossuth was 27th. They’re joined by returning sophomore Michael Gauntner and senior Ryan Podnar, a newcomer this fall.

Gone from the girls team is Keeley Misutka, who placed fifth overall at states as a senior last year. Misutka is now a freshman at Bucknell. The Tigers do return sophomore standout Eva Kynaston along with seniors Maura Mlecko and Rachel Hockenberry, who are four-year runners.

Kynaston placed 23rd overall in the PIAA championship last fall and was eighth-best among runners competing for the team title.

“Eva is back and in a form that’s well above where she was last year even,” Neff said.

Kynaston was sixth at the Red, White & Blue Classic, finishing four seconds behind freshman teammate Wren Kucler in fifth. Robin Kucler was only 11 seconds behind them in 10th place.

However, the best freshman performance that day belonged to Bertram, who won the Class 3A boys race in 15 minutes, 53 seconds. But his breakout this fall isn’t a surprise. Bertram posted the nation’s second-fastest middle school track times in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters last spring, according to MileSplit statistics.

Still, even Neff admits he was impressed by how quickly Bertram adjusted to high school cross country meets. Middle school athletes run three kilometers while high school runners cover five.

“Some people take a year or half a year to catch on to it,” Neff said. “Jack did not take any time to catch on to it. He was ready right out of the gate.”

It’s more common for freshman to contend in girls races, said Neff, who called Bertran’s rare success “an absolutely albatross type of situation.”

“It’s really something as a freshman to come up and contribute in any way, but to be a No. 1 kid is really something special,” Neff said. “It’s exciting to see what he can do this year but also in the future.”

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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