NORTHFIELD -- Morgan Gehl, an athletic junior at Fulda High School, is a Minnesota state champion.

Running on a cold and breezy afternoon across the fields, around a pond and through the woods of the 5,000-meter cross country course at Saint Olaf College in Northfield, Gehl moved quickly to the front of the huge pack and -- in impressive fashion -- progressively pulled away from the entire group of 176 of the state’s best.

As she neared the finish, the determined lead runner for the Section 3A champion Murray County Central/Fulda Warriors was all alone as she sprinted up the final hill and toward the chute to the cheers of hundreds of spectators who lined the fences along the last 200 meters.

“It was a good feeling, winning a state cross country championship,” said Gehl, who was evenly challenged for almost two-thirds of the race by little Natasha Sortland, the state’s top-ranked Class A girl much of the 2019 season. “She (Sortland) stuck right with me most of the first two miles, but as we entered the long hill through the woods, I was able to get the lead alone.”

Indeed, the second-ranked Gehl -- who was running in her fifth consecutive state cross country meet, having qualified individually four previous years -- captured the lead and stretched the distance, winning by 27 seconds with a splendid time of 17:53.5.

Jade Rypkema, a freshman from Nevis, finished a distant second (18:20.2), while Luverne sophomore Tenley Nelson (18:27.1) placed a strong third, leading her Cardinal teammates to a second-place team performance and giving the local area two of the state’s top-three finishers.

Sortland, a freshman from the combination of Zumbrota-Mazeppa and Kenyon-Wanamingo, faded after working so hard to keep pace with Gehl and finished 78th with a clocking of 20:29.6.

“I thought that Morgan ran an excellent race,” praised MCC/F cross country coach Dominick Damm, who ran on back-to-back state runner-up boys’ teams from Heron Lake-Okabena-Lakefield in 1992 and 1993. “Her first mile was fast, but not too aggressive and her second mile -- which we’ve been stressing -- separated her from the field.”

Gehl and Sortland shared the front at the 1,600-meter mark (after circling the pond) with identical times of 5:28.4, while Nelson was right on their tail in third (5:29.0).

By the 3,200-meter marker, near the end of the prairie loop, Gehl had opened up a six-second lead on Sortland (11:20.7 to 11:26.7), and Rypkema (11:42.6) had a slight edge on Nelson (11:43.5) for third.

Sortland was still in second with about 1,200 meters to go, but she was unable to sustain the fast pace set by Gehl and was passed up as the race progressed downhill through the woods and back to the finish area. Rypkema, Nelson and fourth-place finisher Ava Hill, a senior from Mesabi East (18:38.9), maintained their positions up front.

“Morgan had a goal to win the state meet and she did all the right work to achieve it,” declared Damm. “I am so proud of her and our team for all they accomplished this year.”

Saturday’s victory was the 11th of the season for Gehl and her appearance on the post-race awards stage was her fourth straight at the big event. She placed eighth as an eighth-grader in 2016, improved to fourth as a freshman and finished a strong third last year as a sophomore.

Her time of 17:53.5 was bettered by only two Class AA runners as just four of the 351 finishing runners in the two girls’ races ran the course in less than 18 minutes. The top-three times in the Class AA race were 17:46.1 (by Stillwater junior Analee Weaver), 17:52.8 and 17:58.5, respectively.

“That’s remarkable,” summed up Damm. “Morgan Gehl is one of the four best girls in the whole state and is the Class A state cross country champion.”

Nelson, DeBates, Bucher are All-State

While Gehl was winning the race, three other area girls earned All-State honors by finishing among the first 25.

It was the third such distinction for Nelson, who placed fifth two years ago as an eighth-grader in 2017 and finished seventh last year as a freshman.

Luverne eighth-grader Jenna DeBates, who has had several exceptional races in a row, finished 18th overall Saturday with a fine time of 19:31.9.

Entering the chute just four places and less than five seconds later was fast-closing Gracie Bucher, a Windom Area junior, who finished 103rd at Northfield last year. Bucher ran a personal-record (by far) time of 19:36.3 and placed 22nd this year.

“Gracie ran a big PR,” summed up WA head coach Melissa Pletcher. “She had a goal to run under 20 minutes and she crushed that by 24 seconds, which was just a super way for her to finish what was a very good all-around season.”

Bucher moved up from 32nd-place at 3,200 meters (12:34.5) to 25th by the final hill and then passed three more runners with her final sprint to the finish.

Redwood Valley eighth-grader Maddie LeSage finished 12th (19:14.8) as Section 3 had five of the first 22 finishers Saturday.

Southwest Minnesota Christian/Edgerton eighth-grader Taylor Post ran well in her first taste of state-meet competition, finishing 99th with her time of 20:38.6, just ahead of Wabasso senior Chloe Haven (100th, 20:39.6) who was also representing the section as an individual at Northfield for the first time.

“I thought Taylor handled the fast pace of the state race very well,” said her coach Brian Tschetter. “She’s had an amazing season and capped it off in style with a great performance up here.”

Lietz leads area boys in AA

Saturday morning, a trio of Worthington Trojans competed in the high-powered Class AA event and raced aggressively among the pack of 174 finishing runners.

Senior Christian Lietz, who typically finishes strong, did so again on the St. Olaf course. He was 59th at 1,600 meters (5:01.6) and 58th at 3,200 (10:28.5), before moving up to 49th by the end of the race, clocked at 16:27.8.

“Everybody went out so fast at the beginning,” said Lietz of his first state-meet experience. “I tried to hold back some, but probably was a bit too fast. I did feel pretty good coming into the last half-mile or so and was able to pass quite a few runners before and after that last hill.”

Senior Adam Koller had the opposite experience Saturday, as he was up near the front at the mile mark (12th) after having run a blistering 4:51.3.

“I felt fine and entered the race with a high-fitness level, really ready to compete,” said the three-time state-meet qualifier. “But I developed a bad stomach cramp and struggled as the race progressed. It turned out not to be my day.”

Koller was 40th at 3,200 meters (10:22.3) and finished 72nd (16:42.8), being passed by Lietz with about 800 meters left.

Freshman Mikele Walu was the third Trojan running at Northfield and ran a strong third mile. He was 87th at 1,600 meters (5:07.4) and 104th at 3,200 (10:43.2). He ran the last 1,800 meters in 6:00.3 and finished 75th with a time of 16:43.5 -- running a new PR.

“I am so proud of how well Christian, Adam and Mikele ran Saturday and how hard they trained and raced for us all season,” summed up WHS cross country coach Cory Smidt. “It’s been a blast working with them.”

Lietz tossed out equal praise for his coach, saying: “He is a great coach and an all-around nice guy. Coach Smidt makes running fun.”

Both Koller and Lietz plan to continue their running careers next year in college and will be racing Sunday in the Nike Heartland Regional Meet at Yankton Trail Park in Sioux Falls.

In the Class A boys’ race, Luverne senior Brayden Tofteland was the area’s first finisher. He placed 73rd -- ahead of 102 -- with a time of 17:15.3. Tofteland improved 29 places and 13.2 seconds from last year.

Windom Area senior Patrick Green had a fine finishing effort, placing 123rd (17:50.2) as he improved 21 places and 25.9 seconds from his previous run on the same course as a freshman in 2016.

Running at Northfield for the first time were Pipestone Area freshman Caden Strasser (128th, 17:55.1) and junior teammate Seth Lingen (161st, 19:02.2) who each qualified individually for the Arrows.