Their Personal Best

Despite changes to the season, the Cross Country Team’s intensive training regimen and singular focus on a state title remain as steady as ever.


photo by Claire Majerac

Cross Country Head Coach John Neff gives a pep talk to his team before a practice. The team is in pursuit another league championship and state title.

They’ve been called “cultish” by outsiders.  Their sport has been summed up in one blunt word: “death.”  But they shrug off the labels year after after year, and even the current pandemic has not pulled their focus from the path ahead.

The North Allegheny Cross Country team is out to make history — again. Both the boys’ and girls’ teams have their sights set on the WPIAL and PIAA championships. It would be the girls’ third straight state win and the second championship for the boys in three years. 

“I think it’s been a really great season so far,” said senior Andrew Kollitz. “We’re looking really strong, [we] had a great summer, and we’re really looking forward to the rest of the year.”

Senior Keeley Misutka agreed with Kollitz’s assessment.

“I think we’re working hard,” Misutka added. “I think we’re in a good spot right now, and as the season progresses we’ll get faster and stronger.”

Senior Jean Kim rises to award someone on her color team for outstanding performance during a meet. Color teams are an inter-team competition to promote sportsmanship and teamwork among runners. photo by Claire Majerac

The athletes aren’t the only ones with hopeful outlooks for the season. Head Coach John Neff is also very optimistic about his team’s potential.

“We have so many kids back who want to work hard,” Neff said. “On paper, the talent level is through the roof. And in reality, it’s even better,” Neff said. 

On paper, the talent level is through the roof. And in reality, it’s even better.”

— Coach Neff

In the summer of this year, huge meets sponsored by Nike, such as cross country team regionals and nationals, were cancelled due to risk of COVID-19. Though the cancellations were an initial setback, many runners were delighted to learn that the season would resume this fall.

“I’m really happy that we have a season this year,” junior Rachel Hockenberry said.  

The cross country program at North Allegheny is one of the largest athletic teams in the region. Nearly 200 high school boys and girls sign up to participate. Yet, this year, due to public health concerns, only 24 boys and 24 girls are allowed to run in an official me, an approximately 76% cut to the number of runners Neff is accustomed to fielding.

For junior Jack Hickel, the new rule has changed one important aspect of the sport.

“I miss seeing the kids that aren’t on the top 24,” Hickel said. 

A group of boys race in a pack at the NA vs. Seneca meet. photo courtesy of NAXC Boosters

But in an uncertain season, the runners are doing their best to focus on their blessings.  

“We’re probably working harder,” junior Samantha Waldo said. “One week we could have practice and one week we couldn’t.”

Despite the changes brought on by the coronavirus, Neff’s training expectations remain the same. Long runs last 60 minutes for the girls and 80 for the boys. Additional workouts like the 5x1k and hill circuits are imperative to the team’s success, Neff believes. 

We pretend like it’s about the running. But it’s not really. It’s about the changes it makes to a person.”

— Coach Neff

“I like to put kids in situations where they don’t think they will succeed, but they do,” he explained. “That’s when real confidence happens.”

The mental strength of his runners is as integral as their physical stamina, Neff added.

“We pretend like it’s about the running,” he said. “But it’s not really. It’s about the changes it makes to a person.”

During the runs, the girls’ team stays entertained by singing songs and playing spirited games, such as tag. The boys, however, prefer “friendly debates” among each other to pass the time, said junior Graham Wolfe.

Camaraderie is central to the team’s winning ways. Runners see each other at practice every school day, and in some cases, even on Saturdays for big invitationals. 

“We’re all unhealthily very close,” senior Mazzie Standish joked .

Keeley Mistuka races to the finish line in the final stretch in a meet against Seneca Valley. photo courtesy of NAXC Boosters

But for Neff, the main focus is on commitment.

“Be all in,” he said. “Do your runs, do your core, and pay attention to your sleep and what you’re eating. Try to be better than you were yesterday. If you will work every day, the cumulative effect can be unbelievable.”

Freshman Michael Gaunter summarized Neff’s philosophy in simpler terms.

“Don’t eat SpaghettiOs an hour before a workout” Gaunter said.

As dominant as the team has looked this season, it’s hard to believe that Neff, Gauntner, or any of the other runners are likely to make a single misstep in the coming weeks.