Talented sophomores pacing defending PIAA champion North Allegheny cross country teams

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Saturday, September 24, 2022 | 11:01 AM


At this time of year, North Allegheny’s cross country team doesn’t talk much about winning championships, even if the boys and girls are both defending state champs.

The two teams combined have swept all eight WPIAL big-school titles in the past four years and celebrated seven PIAA titles in that span. Yet, instead of talking about more championships, NA coach John Neff said he and his staff spend August and September emphasizing individual goals for every runner at each race.

NA has only five seniors among its top 14 runners, making that approach all the more important.

“Everyone is going to put in the miles,” Neff said. “Who can execute on race day? Who can handle the nerves and keep the mental side of it in check, so that all of the potential in their legs can come out? It’s a lot of talk about that kind of stuff.”

Fortunately for his Tigers, the team’s young stars are already competing at a higher level than most runners their age. Both teams have talented sophomores who’ll be running out front most days: Jack Bertram finished third overall in WPIAL Class 3A boys last season and Wren Kucler took third in the girls championship.

Now 10th graders, those sophomore standouts swept the two big-school titles Sept. 17 at the Boardman (Ohio) Spartan Invitational as North Allegheny won both team titles.

Bertram and Kucler each placed second at the Red, White & Blue meet Sept. 9 in White Oak

Bertram’s winning time in Boardman (15 minutes, 57 seconds) was more than 30 seconds faster than his mark a year ago.

“Jack was great last year, but he’s better this year,” Neff said. “He’s got a lot more confidence now. He knows what he can do. He’s not just feeling it out.”

Kucler improved her time at Boardman by more than 20 seconds, which also equaled her comfortable margin of victory in this year’s race.

“She looks really strong,” Neff said. “She was poised and confident last year, but similar to what I said about Jack, she’s in a spot where she knows exactly what she can do. When she’s out there, she’s going to run hard and it’s going to be a battle.”

Kucler was one of four North Allegheny girls to finish in the top six at Boardman. Not far behind Kucler were juniors Eva Kynaston and Erin McGoey and senior Grace Rowley, who Neff said has made a big jump this year. Kucler’s twin sister Robin is also one of the team’s top runners.

Kynaston placed fourth in the WPIAL last season and Robin Kucler was sixth.

Leading the boys team along with Bertram are juniors Michael Gauntner and James Behrend and seniors Greg Kossuth and Jackson Pajak. Gauntner was 12th in the WPIAL last season and Kossuth finished 16th.

The team’s motto this season is about everyone pulling the rope in the same direction.

“We need a lot of people to pull the rope because there are a lot of (opponents) pulling against it,” Neff said. “Everybody matters. We’re not all going to pull with equal strength, but every pound helps.”

The team might not talk about winning championships in September, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t on their minds.

This is Neff’s 14th season as coach of a program that owns 22 state titles, the earliest dating back to the 1960s. The Tigers have won nine since Neff took over in 2009.

“I’m big into history and I appreciate it the whole time,” said Neff, who also has coached the school’s track team for two decades. “I know what the program has done in the past. I know the great coaches that came before me.

“There’s not a lot of time to sit and think about it, but you do feel a pride of wearing that same coaching hat that those guys wore and talking to the kids about the greats that came before them. It’s not just me. The kids have of a sense for the history of it too.”

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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