North Allegheny cross-country teams run at an elite level nearly every year.
The girls team has reached the PIAA playoffs consistently, and two out of the past four years have ended with top-five state results
The boys team has won the WPIAL Class AAA team championship the past seven years. The past four years, the Tigers have had four top-five PIAA finishes, including a 2010 state championship. The Tigers will be out to showcase their dominance again next week at the WPIAL cross country championship meet Thursday at Cooper's Lake Campground near Slippery Rock.
When a cross-country team has such dominance, it isn't an accident. So how does North Allegheny maintain its winning tradition in cross country?
"We talk about the tradition all the time," said North Allegheny coach John Neff. "When kids join the team, they know it's not 'just some other team.' We talk about that a lot."
Likewise, the high standards perpetuate themselves.
The desire for dominance is one thing, but how does North Allegheny avoid the "roster cycle" -- the tendency of teams to have building seasons following the graduation of groups of starters?
"We do have an unbelievable middle-school team," said Neff. "It's a team that's just as big as [the varsity] -- they've got over 100 kids on their team. The coach is Jason Winchell, and he does an unbelievable job with those kids, getting them excited about the program ... They get a chance to make 'varsity' of their own."
What Neff meant was that in cross-country invitationals and championships, a team selects its top seven runners to compete. At North Allegheny, middle-school runners have the opportunity to compete for their own team's top spots.
"At an early stage, they're introduced to the idea of working for their place on the depth chart and always doing their best every day," said Neff. "They learn that there just may be someone else who wants it more than you."
Neff explained that although the majority of North Allegheny varsity cross-country runners come through the middle-school program, the Tigers also get plenty of successful newcomers.
"[Senior] Max Petrosky only joined the team as a sophomore," Neff said. "Now, he's right around seventh or eighth on the depth chart."
Seamus Love, a sophomore, actually came to North Allegheny's cross-country team from the hockey team. Love is now a consistent front-runner -- he ran a 16:54 at North Allegheny's last section meet against Seneca Valley and Butler at Seneca Valley.
Neff added that Katie Guarnaccia came to North Allegheny's girls cross-country team as a junior. Guarnaccia's previous sports experience had been on the rowing team, but she has since made the cross-country varsity.
In contrast, sophomore Matt McGoey came up through the middle-school program. He was North Allegheny's No. 1 runner at the Oct. 6 Central Catholic Invitational. The Tigers won that meet, and McGoey ran a 16:13 at Schenley Park.
Making North Allegheny's varsity cross-country squad is simple to understand and hard to do.
"At most of the invitationals, varsity teams run seven or 10 kids," said Neff. "So the varsity runners just have to be the fastest seven to 10 on the team."
In the early season, the first time trials to determine the varsity cutoff are done about a week before school starts. The experience of a North Allegheny cross-country time trial can lead to mixed reactions from runners.
"They're usually chomping at the bit," said Neff. "The ones who are prepared can't wait. But the ones who didn't do enough [training] over the summer are a little nervous."
Neff explained that North Allegheny runners would simply have to be willing to put the time in -- on running as well as "the little things." Sleep, nutrition and hydration were examples of Neff's "little things."
Overall, there's no one answer to explain North Allegheny's cross-country dominance. It's a combination of training, hard work and good health habits. But a shared desire to uphold the North Allegheny tradition seems prevalent.
"I think a lot of the kids want to be part of the team because they know it's something special," said Neff.