NORTHFIELD --- At exactly 2:02 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 3), the starter’s pistol was fired at the Class A state girls’ cross country meet near the newly refurbished field house on the campus of St. Olaf college and 176 of Minnesota’s best --- 112 who represented the 16 competing teams and 64 others who had qualified as individuals from the state’s eight sections --- took off down the wide-opening path.
The 5,000-meter race featured a pair of defending state champions and last year’s runner-up, along with a trio of state-ranked girls from Section 3A.
Just over a mile into the elite event, Grace Ping (third last year and first three years ago in 2015 as a seventh-grader) passed two-time defending state champion Tierney Wolfgram, this year’s top-ranked runner all season. Wolfgram, a sophomore from the Math and Science Academy in Woodbury, stumbled a bit, fell down and walked off the course.
Ping, a sophomore at Winona Cotter, took and stretched her lead, followed by younger sister Lauren (an eighth-grader who finished second in 2017). As the runners approached the area where they make what’s known as the prairie loop near the halfway point, the Ping sisters were being chased by a pair of area runners as Murray County Central /Fulda sophomore Morgan Gehl was in third place and Luverne freshman Tenley Nelson was running fourth.
Gehl, ranked fourth all year in Class A, held her position the rest of the way and clocked a stellar time of 17:53.9 which also would have placed her third in Class AA, among the state’s big-school runners.
“I think I did good,” said Gehl in a classic understatement with her always humble style while chatting with teammates and friends in the field house afterward. “I moved up to third near the mile mark and was able to stay there the whole race, mostly running by myself.”
Grace Ping finished first with a state-meet record time of 17:19.4, bettering Wolfgram’s 2017 winning time of 17:31.6. Lauren Ping was second (17:41.5), followed 12 seconds later by Gehl.
“Morgan was moving up on Lauren Ping somewhat during the second mile,” declared her coach Dominick Damm, who ran on back-to-back state runner-up teams for Heron Lake-Okabena-Lakefield in 1992 and 1993. “She was getting close, but the Ping sisters certainly well ran. But, wow, out of 352 runners up here in Class A and AA, Morgan had the fifth fastest time of all of them.”
Last year, Gehl finished fourth (18:35.1) after placing eighth two years ago (19:25.5) and 61st (20:29.7) as a seventh-grader in 2015 in her first race at St. Olaf.
“She’s still improving, which is neat to see,” summed up Damm. “Morgan represented our loaded section very well.”Drietz, Nelson finish 6-7
While there was a gap between first and second, second and third, and third and fourth Saturday, the race for fourth was closely contested. Ava Hill, a junior from Mesabi East, claimed the spot with a time of 18:24.4, nearly 29 seconds after Gehl was finished.
Nelson, who was ranked eighth most of the season, finished seventh with her time of 18:34.9 (16 seconds faster than her fifth-place 2017 time of 18:50.9), just behind Canby/Minneota freshman Grace Drietz (ninth-ranked) who placed sixth (18:30.5). The eighth-place time was 18:46.0.
In addition to Gehl, Drietz and Nelson, two other Section 3A runners --- Lac qui Parle Valley / Dawson-Boyd senior Isabel Schurm (15th, 19:22.8) and Luverne sophomore Regan Feit (20th, 19:27.8) --- finished among the Top 20, earning All-State honors (Top 25).
“That was some kind of performance by the girls from our section,” beamed Southwest Christian/Edgerton head coach Brian Tschetter, who stated that fact more than once. “We had several awesome up-front finishes by girls from southwestern Minnesota.”
Among the individual qualifiers, Pipestone Area senior Jonna Strasser (94th, 20:40.5) and Windom Area sophomore Gracie Bucher (103, 20:48.9) each ran well, finishing near the middle of the huge pack.
“Jonna had a good experience running cross country for us,” said Arrows’ head coach Erin Clauson-Gordon. “She ran a great race up here, moving up through the field and finishing ahead of several runners who beat her in the section meet.”Koller, Piotter break 17:00; Clarke improves 26 places
Running in the first race of the day (10 a.m.), Worthington junior Adam Koller again ran the St. Olaf course well under 17 minutes. Koller clocked a 97th-place time of 16:47.5 among the 176 Class AA finishers, which would have placed him 32nd in Class A.
“Adam had another super season for the Trojans,” declared WHS head coach Cory Smidt. “The competition in Class AA is just awesome. Adam’s been so consistent, and running that course in less than 17 minutes two years in a row is an accomplishment.
Koller finished 76th last year at St. Olaf with a time of 16:40.0.
In Class A, Mountain Lake Area senior Dalton Piotter improved two places and 12.6 seconds from last year (50th, 17:11.9) as he finished 48th with a time of 16:59.3, also breaking 17 minutes.
“It was fun,” said Piotter, who was this year’s Red Rock Conference champion. “I didn’t like that one hill with gravel, but otherwise the race went well for me.”
Murray County Central / Fulda junior Justin Clarke was back for a third year and made a huge improvement, moving up 26 places (85th last year, 17:29.1) and slicing 25 seconds off his time by finishing 59th Saturday (17:04.1), his fastest race of the season.
“I was happy with that,” he said. “Being here before helped, knowing where the hills and the sharp turns are.”
Luverne junior Brayden Tofteland (102, 17:28.5), MLA senior Ryan Blomgren (114, 17:37.6) and Luverne senior Dalton DeSollar (117, 17:39.8) also represented the area well at St. Olaf Saturday.
Blomgren, who ran with MLA’s state-qualifying team last year (100th, 17:42.5), improved his time by 4.9 seconds.
“I love this course and the atmosphere of being able run here,” he said. “It’s a great overall experience.”
It was the first state-meet race for both Tofteland and DeSollar.
“Brayden and Dalton each raced well, I was pleased with where they finished,” said LHS head coach Pete Janiszeski. “They have both been consistent runners for us and were able to finish their seasons with good performances, at both the section and state meets.”