Morgan Gehl is an excellent student and a state champion athlete, but the teenager from a Fulda farm family has other attributes that mean more.

“My daughter,” said her father Clayton, “is very sweet.”

Clayton Gehl has the rugged tanned face of a farmer and no-nonsense demeanor of a hard-working man. He is also the shop foreman at Slayton International.

His features soften, though, when asked about his daughter, the defending state champion cross country star at Murray County Central/Fulda High.

“Morgan’s very humble, very kind and very caring,” said Clayton slowly.

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What more could a father ask?

Clayton smiled, eyes glistening a bit.

“No more,” he said.

It’s an especially emotional time for high school athletes across the land, with virus-related shutdowns affecting competition and causing disruption near and far. Morgan, a blonde senior and the most decorated female cross country runner in Murray County history, had hoped to close her prep career with a second straight unbeaten season and state championship.

The Minnesota State High School League has allowed teams to race modified schedules, but there are no plans for a state meet.

Without a state championship to motivate, the 3.1-mile courses that cross country athletes navigate can be longer than ever.

“It’s tough, but you still want to finish the season as strong as possible,” Morgan said. “I’m glad I was able to get first place at least one time.”

There has never been a cross country team to achieve a state championship at either Fulda or Murray County Central, which three decades ago paired Slayton with Chandler-Lake Wilson students.

“If we would have had a state meet this year, we would have dominated,” Morgan said.

That’s because twins Ashley and Amanda Overgaauw have joined Morgan as legitimate state championship contenders on the MCC/Fulda squad. The superb sophomores have edged Morgan in several races this season, a stunning development considering the defending state champ’s unbeaten season last fall.

Morgan’s success has stood the test of time. She’s qualified for the state cross country meet five years in a row, since she was a seventh-grader. And she’s placed in the top 10 four times, including last season’s convincing championship effort.

Her mother, Faye (Kramer) Gehl, is a former Fulda High cross country and track athlete.

“I love watching Morgan,” Faye said.

So do many others. But if all that attention affects Morgan, it doesn’t show.

“Morgan is quiet,” Faye said. “If she wins a medal, she just throws it in her bag. And she thanks the Lord. She knows it all comes from the Lord in the first place.”

An unusual year

This season has been different, to say the least. It’s also been unusual in that Morgan hasn’t been winning every race.

“It’s OK,” Faye said. “We’re really OK with it. We just tell Morgan she has nothing to prove. And that she’s awesome.”

Morgan is a strong runner, with long legs made for lengthy strides. She’s also a strong worker on the farm, located just north and west of Fulda. Her summers include chores. She picks rock, mows extensively and helps with the field work.

Plus she trains.

“I always run on the gravel roads,” she said. “It’s peaceful out there.”

Morgan said she’s proud of her teammates on the exceptional MCC/Fulda squad, especially the Overgaauw sisters. But hasn’t it been difficult for a state champion who is used to being the leader of the band to play second fiddle to her own teammates?

“No, not really,” Morgan said.

You see, she doesn’t toot her own horn.

“Now I just have to switch stuff up, train a little harder and work more,” Morgan said.

College cross country programs, of course, are beckoning.

“I don’t know,” Morgan said when asked about her running future. “I’m not sure yet.”

The MCC/Fulda cross country coach is certain of this much: Morgan Gehl will live long in the memories of Murray County running enthusiasts.

“Morgan is a competitor, but if you were talking to her you’d never know how competitive she is,” MCC/Fulda coach Dominick Damm said. “She has never ever complained about a workout. Never. She fights all the time. It doesn’t matter if it’s one of the girls or boys in front of her. It’s just another person to run down and race with.”

Morgan has been dealing with a sore knee. But the subject never came up last week during a discussion with her and Damm.

That says much about the heart of this state champion.

“She’s been a once-in-a-lifetime athlete to coach, for sure,” Damm said. “Once in a lifetime. I’m so proud of her.”