LUVERNE - Returning as a team for the fourth consecutive time - and the sixth time in the past eight years - the young Luverne Cardinals are the only area team participating in this year’s state cross country meet, which will again take place at St. Olaf College in Northfield.

The four-race event will be Saturday, with the Class AA competition in the morning and Class A running in the afternoon. Three other area individual qualifiers will join Luverne’s seven runners and six area boys, five of them in Class A, have also earned the chance to run at the state meet.

Again competing in Class AA will be Worthington’s Adam Koller. A junior this year, Koller qualified to run at Northfield last year and placed 76th (among 176 finishers) in the highly competitive large-school race with a then-personal-record time of 16:40.0. Koller has run 5,000 meters faster since, including a new PR time of 16:24.2 at last week’s Section 2AA Meet where he placed seventh among 112 finishers.

“Adam has prepared himself well and is ready to run at state again,” declared Trojans coach Cory Smidt. “The competition is extraordinary in Class AA, but Adam is really focused and determined to move up quite a few places this year.”

Koller’s race is the first of the day, beginning at 10 a.m. 

Luverne’s seven girls - sophomore Regan Feit, freshmen Tenley Nelson and Brooklynn VerSteeg, eighth-graders Elizabeth Wagner and Tiana Lais, along with seventh-graders Jenna DeBates and Makena Nelson - will be among the 16 competing teams that will start their 5,000-meter race at 2 p.m.

Nelson has been superb all fall, winning most races and finishing a strong second in last week’s Section 3A Meet on her home course. After placing 65th as a seventh-grader in 2016 with a time of 20:27.4, she made a dramatic jump to fifth last year, clocked at 18:50.9. She is ranked eighth this year in Class A.

Feit has three years of state-meet experience with the Cardinals, having been their lead runner at Northfield once (2016), their second finisher once (2017) and the team’s third runner the other time (2015). She placed 15th overall last year with a time of 19:18.4.

“We’ve been fortunate to have another great year,” summed up LHS head coach Pete Janiszeski. “Our success has been a testament to all of the hard work and dedication these kids have put in toward being their best. Our goal for Saturday is to have each one of our runners give it everything they have, leaving every last ounce of effort out on the course.”

Joining those seven girls will be a pair of individual boys qualifiers, as senior Dalton DeSollar and junior Brayden Tofteland each earned advancement and will be running at St. Olaf for the first time.

“I am so happy for the two of them,” declared Janiszeski. “They have both worked so hard and have been consistent performers for us. It’s been truly rewarding to watch them grow and mature as young men and as runners, with an opportunity to compete at the state meet.”

Three other area boys who will competing Saturday are repeat qualifiers.

Murray County Central / Fulda junior Justin Clarke is back for a third state-meet run, having finished fourth at last week’s sectional meet. Clarke will be striving to improve on his middle-of-the pack (89th and 88th) finishes in his two previous races at St. Olaf.

Mountain Lake Area seniors Dalton Piotter (50th last year, 17:11.9) and Ryan Blomgren (100th, 17:42.5) were both key runners for the Wolverines’ qualifying team in 2017. This year, they will each be running as individuals.

“We are awfully proud of both runners earning trips back to state,” summed up MLA coach Kyle Blomgren (Ryan’s father). “They each worked very hard in the off-season, logging quality miles and working on strength and speed. I am happy for them to be able to finish their fine careers at Northfield.”

Clarke, Piotter, DeSollar, Tofteland and Blomgren will start their race at 1 p.m.

Gehl is running better than ever

Murray County Central / Fulda sophomore Morgan Gehl (fourth-ranked) has won every race she’s been in this fall - by a long ways, including winning a third consecutive individual sectional championship with a blistering time of 17:48.0 - the second-fastest among all eight section meets.

Only two-time defending state champion Tierney Wolfgram, a sophomore from Woodbury’s Math and Science Academy, ran faster as she won Section 4A with her time of 17:29.6.

Gehl placed fourth at last year’s state meet (behind Wolfgram and the Ping sisters - Lauren and Grace - from Winona Cotter) with a time of 18:35.1. She was eighth two years ago (19:25.5) after finishing 61st (20:29.7) as a seventh-grader in 2015.

“Morgan has continued to improve,” summed up her coach, Dominick Damm. “She loves to race and is well-prepared to run up near the front with the best of the best.”

Two other area girls - Windom junior Gracie Bucher and Pipestone Area senior Jonna Strasser - also earned individual qualification and will join Luverne’s team and Gehl on the starting line Saturday.

“Gracie is really excited to show what she is capable of with the next caliber of athletes,” said Eagles coach Melissa Pletcher. “After qualifying this year, I think she had a huge sense of relief that her goal was finally achieved after the last two years of bad luck.” 

Bucher fell near the section race’s finish line two years and missed out on advancing. Last year, she came down with an illness and was unable to compete in the section meet.

Strasser, too, was elated when she heard that she had qualified as an individual.

“Jonna was very excited about qualifying to run at state,” exclaimed her coach, Erin Clauson-Gordon. “She’s become quite a distance runner, putting in a lot of miles over the years, and it’s paid off. It wasn’t that long ago when she refused to run anything over a 200 in track.”

As a team, Luverne’s girls have finished among the top seven teams seven times in 10 appearances, going back to 2002. The Cardinals were sixth in 2004 with 170 points, fifth in 2005 (146), seventh in 2007 (186), seventh in 2013 (185), fourth in 2015 (168), fourth in 2016 (148) and sixth last year with 203 points (3-8-42-63-87).