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SW Minnesota harbors top-ranked cross country girl runner in state Class A and loaded Luverne team

Morgan Gehl
Murray County Central/Fulda cross country runner Morgan Gehl is rated No. 1 in Minnesota Class A. ( Tim Middagh / The Globe )

FULDA -- Now that the Ping sisters, Grace and Lauren, of Winona Cotter have moved to Arizona, Fulda High School junior Morgan Gehl is Minnesota’s top-ranked Class A girls cross country runner, according to the pre-season poll released by the state coaches association.

Running in her fourth consecutive state meet for the combined program of Murray County Central and Fulda, Gehl finished third at last November’s state meet -- behind Grace and Lauren Ping -- running a challenging 5,000-meter course at St. Olaf College in Northfield in a remarkable time of 17:53.9.

Gehl finished fourth (18:35.1) in 2017, behind the Ping sisters and Tierney Wolfgram of Woodury’s Math and Science Academy, after an eighth-place performance (19:25.5) as an eighth-grader in 2016. She has improved steadily since finishing 61st in her first state-meet run as a seventh-grader in 2015, clocked at 20:29.7.

Wolfgram has transferred to a Class AA school and the Pings have moved again, after spending time in Utah a couple of years ago.

While Gehl is at the top of the individual poll, the four-time Section 3A champion Luverne Cardinals are rated first in the Class A girls team rankings as they return all seven runners from last year’s fourth-place team finish at St. Olaf.

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Luverne’s top three runners -- sophomore Tenley Nelson, junior Regan Feit and sophomore Brooklynn VerSteeg -- have each run on back-to-back LHS state champion 4x800-meter relay teams in track and field. Feit has run with the Cardinals in four state cross country meets and both Nelson and VerSteeg have run the Northfield course three times.

Nelson leads Luverne in the fall and is currently ranked sixth individually in Class A girls cross country. She finished seventh at last year’s state meet and placed an impressive fifth as an eighth-grader in 2017.

Feit has also been an All-State cross country runner, three times in fact, finishing 20th overall in 2018, 15th in 2017 and 23rd in 2016.

Backing up those lead three -- with state-meet experience -- are freshmen Elizabeth Wagner and Tiana Lais (twice each) and eighth-graders Jenna DeBates and Makena Nelson, who both ran at Northfield last year.

“We are blessed to return all of our top seven runners,” says LHS head coach Pete Janiszeski. “They are a hard-working, driven and close-knit group of girls who are always striving to improve.”

Luverne’s girls have competed as a team at the state meet 11 times in the past 17 years, including twice (2002-2005 and 2015-2018) qualifying four straight times.

Janiszeski also has a good group of Cardinal boys, led by senior Brayden Tofteland who qualified for last year’s state meet and ran an impressive race at Luverne’s season-opening meet In Fairmont last week.

Among the other area boys to keep tabs on this fall are MCC/F senior Justin Clarke (a three-time state-qualifier), Pipestone Area junior Seth Lingen, Luverne senior Jonah Friedrichsen, Windom Area runners Patrick Green (a senior) and Cameron Alm (a junior), MCC/F junior Maverick Beckmann and Heron Lake-Okabena junior Paul Salentiny.

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Jackson County Central had four boys -- senior Simon Pell, sophomores Clayton Cavness and Mason Bobb, along with eighth-grader Evan Paplow -- all run strong races at Mountain Lake’s 14-team meet on Aug. 28.

Two other area eighth-graders with varsity-level capability are Kody Wassman of Mountain Lake Area/Comfrey and Tim Salentiny of HL-O.

While Gehl and Nelson are premier runners, there are several other top-notch girls in the area, including Adrian senior Moriah Bullerman, Windom junior Gracie Bucher and JCC sophomore Olivia Anderson.

Other girls who will likely be up near the front of most races are Southwest Christian/Edgerton juniors Mikayla Johnson and Ella Veldkamp, Windom junior Jadyn Wormstadt, MLA/C junior Anika Fast and sophomore teammates Riley Schroeder, Mercedes Saengosoth and Kate Janzen, along with Adrian sophomore Hitlyn Heitkamp, SWC/E eighth-grader Taylor Post and PA freshmen Avery Becher and Brooklyn Goelz.

Johnson was a state-meet qualifier for SWC/E as a freshman two seasons ago, and both Veldkamp and Post ran well for the Eagles in last year’s section meet.

MCC/F, paced by Gehl, is loaded with well-balanced depth and at least eight girls will challenge for the remaining six varsity spots. Freshman twin sisters Ashley and Amanda Overgaauw are both good cross country runners, as are juniors Josie Harms and Victoria Pierson, sophomores Ella Stapek and Ryanna Schreier, and eighth-graders Brylei Schreier and Brealyn Damm.

MCC will host the Red Rock Conference meet at Slayton Oct. 14, and St. James hosts the Big South Conference meet at Mountain Lake on Oct. 15. This year’s Section 3A meet is at Madison on Oct. 24.

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