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SW Minnesota very well represented for state cross country meet

cross country

SLAYTON -- A hot spot for boys’ cross country in the late 1970s was the Slayton High School Wildcats. Now part of a larger school district, Murray County Central has been paired for more than a decade with Fulda.

While the program has still experienced plenty of success every fall with its boys, as evidenced by seven Red Rock Conference team titles in a recent nine-year span, it’s a group of young girls who have created excitement in the grueling long-distance running sport this year.

Paced by the incredible lead-run performances of junior Morgan Gehl, the team -- officially known this season as the Warriors -- has won seven team championships in 2019, including last week’s 3-point victory over perennial power Luverne for the Section 3A crown.

“We have been running well as a team all season,” declared MCC/Fulda cross country coach Dominick Damm. “I thought that we ran even better in the section meet. We had to because Luverne ran very good, too. Now, we hope that we can reproduce that kind of a balanced effort at the state meet and maybe even tighten it up a bit more.”

MCC/Fulda and Luverne will both be among the 16 Class A girls’ teams competing Saturday on the campus of St. Olaf College In Northfield. The Warriors (third) and the Cardinals (fourth) are ranked high in the latest poll conducted by the state cross country coaches association.

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Defending state champion Perham is top-ranked, followed by Staples-Motley, which finished fifth as a team in 2018. Section 2A champion Fairmont is ranked 11th.

Joining them as qualifying individuals are Windom Area junior Gracie Bucher (back for a second time) and Southwest Minnesota Christian/Edgerton eighth-grader Taylor Post, advancing for the first time. The Class A girls’ 5,000-meter race begins at 1 p.m.

Prior to that, a trio of Worthington High School boys -- seniors Adam Koller and Christian Lietz, along with freshman Mikele Walu -- will race in the high-powered Class AA boys’ event which has an 11 a.m. start time over the same course.

Four area Class A boys will begin their race at 2 p.m. Luverne senior Brayden Tofteland is back as a repeat individual qualifier and will be joined by a pair of Pipestone Area runners -- junior Seth Lingen and freshman Caden Strasser (both running at state for the first time). The fourth local individual is Windom senior Patrick Green, who ran with the fourth-place Eagles three years ago as a freshman in 2016.

Young teams are deep

Gehl has won three consecutive section individual gold medals and will be running in her fifth straight state meet. This is the first time that she will be running with her teammates.

“We wanted to make it together as a team,” she said after the Warriors were announced as section champions at Madison on Oct. 24. “That was our goal and all the girls ran good races, which is what we needed.”

The Overgaauw twins sisters -- Ashley and Amanda, both freshmen, finished seventh and eighth overall, respectively, in the section race and have been amazingly consistent as the second and third Warriors all season. Eighth-grader Brylei Schreier ran a fantastic race as the team’s fourth finisher (12th) at Madison, while juniors Josie Harms and Victoria Pierson, along with sophomores Ella Stapek and Ryanna Schreier have also each been important contributors to MCC/F’s success.

Luverne, led by sophomore Tenley Nelson, returns for a fifth consecutive year and -- like MCC/F -- is still young. The Cardinals finished fourth, out of 16 teams, at last year’s state meet, just missing the third-place team medals by seven points. It was the third time in four years that the LHS girls finished fourth at Northfield.

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This year, Luverne has been slowed some by nagging leg injuries to a pair of its veteran runners -- junior Regan Feit and sophomore Brooklyn VerSteeg -- who have both been sidelined for a couple of meets. But, as usual, the Cardinals have oncoming young runners to help bolster the program’s solid depth.

Eighth-grader Jenna DeBates has bettered the 20-minute mark in Luverne’s last two meets as the team’s second runner and freshman Elizabeth Wagner is also running well as the fifth Cardinal.

“We concentrate our focus on what we can control, which is the girls in the red and white uniforms,” stresses LHS cross country coach Pete Janiszeski. “We always want to give each race our best effort.”

Gehl, Nelson among the best

Gehl and Nelson have each enjoyed remarkable state-meet success. After a 61st-place finish as a seventh-grader in 2015, Gehl improved to eighth as an eighth-grader before moving up to fourth in 2017 and finishing an impressive third last year.

Gehl is ranked second in Class A, behind Natasha Sortland, a freshman from Zumbrota-Mazeppa/Kenyon-Wanamingo. Sortland placed eighth at last year’s state race, 52 seconds behind Gehl, who finished after the Ping sisters -- Grace and Lauren -- of Winona Cotter, who have moved to Arizona.

Nelson, Class A’s third-ranked runner, will race at Northfield for a fourth consecutive time. She was 65th as a seventh-grader in 2016, jumped up all the way to fifth as an eighth-grader and finished seventh (11 seconds ahead of Sortland) last year.

Feit will be running for a fifth straight time and has been an All-State performer (Top 25) three consecutive times, placing as high as 15th two years ago as a freshman.

Joining Nelson, Feit, DeBates, VerSteeg and Wagner for the Cardinals will likely be freshman Grace Ingebretson and eighth-grader Kayla Bloemendaal, with eighth-grader Makena Nelson and freshman Tiana Lais as alternates.

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Koller back for Worthington

Koller, who extended his season for a third consecutive time with a stellar third-place performance at last week’s Section 2AA Meet in Minnetrista, has won seven races this fall. Among those first places was a Big South Conference championship when he ran 5,000 meters in 15:56, meeting two of his season’s goals.

Despite his consistent success, Koller has not been ranked among the top-12 Class AA boys. He has, however, finished ahead of state-ranked runners Jeff Oachs of Mankato East (twice) and Chanhassen’s Nick Oak during the month of October.

Koller placed 76th among a total of 176 finishers as a sophomore in 2017 with a time of 16:40. Last year, he placed 97th (16:47.5).

“I think that Adam will finish much closer to the front this year,” says WHS coach Cory Smidt. “He’s been good the past two seasons, but he’s even better -- much better -- this year.”

Smidt also praised Lietz and Walu, who have been steady all fall and earned advancement by running strong races at Minnetrista. Lietz was seventh (16:32.4) and Walu earned the section’s final individual advancement (13th, 16:54.6) with an extra effort at the finish.

“It will be fun for Adam to have two teammates running with him this year,” summed up Smidt. “It’s also going to a neat experience for both Christian and Mikele.”

Tofteland ran a time of 17:28.5 at Northfield last year and placed 102nd among Class A boys. Bucher finished 103rd in last year’s Class A girls’ state-meet race with her time of 20:48.9. Three years ago, Green -- as Windom’s sixth runner -- finished 144th overall (83rd in the team placing) with a time of 18:16.1.

“We are excited to have both Gracie and Patrick get another chance to run at the state meet,” summed up Eagles’ cross country coach Melissa Pletcher. “We’re confident that each of them will improve upon their past performances and come home with a positive feeling about the fine seasons they have enjoyed.”

The weather forecast for Saturday is continued cold with a high temperature reading in the upper 30s.

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