Saturday 20 November 2021 | 11:01 am
There was a time when Maura Mlecko was the rookie to the North Allegheny cross country team, first competing in the State Championship at Hershey. But like the runners on this course, four years can go by quickly.
As a senior surrounded by freshmen, Mlecko was back in Hershey this month to help North Allegheny win the PIAA tag team title for the fourth time in four years, placing Mlecko in historic territory as as quadruple team champion.
Only three other state girls have achieved this feat in PIAA history.
“I have all four of them hanging in my bedroom right now,” she said of her gold medals. “I will definitely keep them for a long time.”
Mlecko wrapped up her collection on November 8 when the girls from North Allegheny won the PIAA Class 3A tag team title with a dominant run, edging the second place team 62-149.
The Tigers are only the third women’s team in state history to win four straight wins, and they are the first to do so in the biggest standings. Mlecko was the only NA runner to compete in the four PIAA wins, and she scored for her team every time.
This year, she was a single senior in a championship roster that had four freshmen and two sophomores.
“The team matters to her,” said NA coach John Neff. “She is always aware that the youngest are watching her and she doesn’t want to let them down. She constantly gives them advice. It is a gem. She will be missed next year.
The PIAA has crowned the girl cross country champions since 1974. Yet the only other girls to have contributed to the four PIAA tag team titles were sisters Wyomissing Amy and Debbie Huss in 1999-2002. Joanne Kehs of Perkiomen Valley also had four straight wins in 1978-81, but she only scored twice in her team’s four championship games.
Cross-country teams enter seven runners and score points for the top five.
Mlecko was never the fastest runner on her team, but her consistency in the state championships was remarkable. Mlecko placed 19th overall this year out of 140 riders 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 everything to the table,” said Neff. “Obviously, she’s very, very talented – a lot of God-given talent – but at the same time, she’s ready to work hard. She never misses training. And when she’s there, she always gives 100%. There is never a day when she will slack off. Never.”
North Allegheny had seven runners who all finished in the top 40 this year. In front of Mlecko were Eva Kynaston (third overall) in sophomore NA and freshman sisters Wren Kucler (fourth) and Robin Kucler (12th). Behind Mlecko (19th), sophomore Erin McGoey (24th) and freshmen Sydney Kuder (28th) and Camille Swirsding (38th).
Mlecko said she remembers the feeling of being a runner for the first time in state competition.
“As a freshman, I had some amazing seniors who walked me through this,” Mlecko said. “They made sure I was comfortable in the team and were very welcoming. As I got older, I took on this role. Especially in the last 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 his first year. This year, she broke the 20-minute nine-second mark, a feat celebrated by Mlecko. She had crossed at exactly 20 minutes in second grade. His time as a junior was 20 minutes 39 seconds.
“I was really happy because breaking 20 on this course was such a big deal,” she said. “My sophomore year I ran 20 flat and wanted to break that barrier.”
Mlecko said she could run for a club team in college, if that was an option, but that she has no plans to pursue varsity competition. So the state championship encounter with his NA teammates was perhaps his last cross-country race for a school team.
She tried not to dwell on this idea at Hershey.
“I didn’t want to think about it,” Mlecko said. “I knew if I thought about it, it would shrink the whole day a bit. So I was just focused on my teammates and how we managed to win states again. “
Mlecko started running cross country in seventh grade, following in the footsteps of her father and an older sister.
“I still remember meeting her as a young child,” 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 this happens.
Key words: Northern Allegheny