Last fall the Luverne girls cross country team claimed an unofficial state championship.

This time the Cardinals are aiming for the real deal.

The Luverne girls of head coach Pete Janiszeski appear to be the class of southwest Minnesota — and perhaps all of Class A. Six of the Cards’ top nine runners from 2020 are returning, a group led by senior Tenley Nelson and sophomore Jenna DeBates, and Luverne’s girls are No. 1 in the state cross country coaches’ preseason rankings. Nelson and DeBates are ranked third and fifth, respectively, in the coaches’ preseason poll.

Luverne also has a pack that features Grace Ingebretson, Tiana Lais and Kayla Bloemendaal. Most also sparkle on Luverne’s award-winning girls track team, which has won no less than four straight 4x800 relay state titles.

Because of COVID precautions, the Minnesota State High School League did not offer state cross country meets last fall. There was an invitational showcase competition in Atwater, though, with many of the top teams and individuals competing.

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“It was our quote-unquote state championship and our girls won that pretty handily, so we kind of feel like we were the state champs,” Janiszeski said.

Last fall was such an unusual season in that meets were restricted to three teams and the final competition that counted was a sectional meet. It allowed for social distancing by having timed heats for the 5,000-meter cross country distance.

There are two classes for Minnesota cross country. Luverne’s girls finished second in Class A in 2019, the last time there was an MSHSL state cross country meet. Nelson was third in that one, while former Murray County Central/Fulda star Morgan Gehl won the race.

There are several other noteworthy programs and individuals in the area, including the Murray County Central/Fulda teams of veteran coach Dominick Damm.

“We’ll be competitive both on the boys and girls,” he said.

The Rebel girls are led by sensational junior twins Amanda and Ashley Overgaauw, who are ranked second and 12th, respectively, in the coaches’ preseason poll.

“They’re both elite runners,” Damm said. “They seem to be picking up right where they left off.”

Ashley won nearly every race she entered last fall, with Amanda finishing second in most. Amanda was fifth at the showcase meet in Atwater, where Ashley had to withdraw midway through.

At the state track meet last May, the twins teamed with Brylei Schreier and Megan Bakke for a fifth-place finish in the Class A 4x800 relay. Schreier’s sister, Ryanna, is also running cross country this fall, along with capable runners like Chelby Kesteloot, Lindsey Hause, Braelyn Damm and others.

Losing Gehl, a Fulda High graduate who placed in multiple state cross country and track meets and is now running at the University of Sioux Falls, will be about impossible. Josie Harms also graduated from last year’s squad.

But Damm, who has been at MCC/F for two decades, is optimistic this could be his best girls team.

“We’ve got a big crew,” coach Damm said. “Hopefully we’ll have no restrictions throughout the season and we can get back to the state meet and place high.”

Perennial championship contenders Canby-Minneota and Lac qui Parle Valley will also challenge. Redwood Valley, Windom Area, Pipestone Area and Jackson County Central also have some talented individuals.

Luverne is also loaded with veteran runners in the boys program. The Cardinals have two of coach Janiszeski’s sons, junior Camden and ninth-grader Owen, to lead the way. Also back are Griffen Jarchow and Sage Viessman, plus other talented runners. Camden ran the mile and was on the Cards’ eighth-place 4x400 relay team at the state track meet last May.

“If we’re blessed enough to stay healthy and free of illness and injury at the wrong time I think we can definitely be in the mix of things,” coach Janiszeski said. “But there are quite a few strong teams in our section.”

Windom Area and Jackson County Central teams could also emerge — both the girls and boys.

The MCC boys are led by seniors Rylan Engelkes and Ryan Risacher, and juniors Wyatt Biren and Tanner Graphenteen.

Jackson coach Rafe York is especially optimistic about a boys team that returns most of its depth. It’s a group that includes seniors Kie Anderson, Andrew Boyum, Clayton Cavness and Evan Insichienmay, and sophomore Evan Paplow.

The JCC girls are led by senior Olivia Anderson, sophomore Elise Paplow and freshman Rylie Cother.

Among several talented young Windom Area runners is Kaylee Walklin.

The 3A section meet is slated for Oct. 28 Madison, and the state competition is slated Nov. 6 at St. Olaf College in Northfield.