Schnepf: Perham XC program rises to national prominence
Fargo -- David Taylor, a distance running junkie who once got to try on Steve Prefontaine's Olympic warmup uniform, proclaims this fall as the golden age of high school cross country.
"This is going to be the greatest year in high school cross country," said Taylor, a 34-year-old U.S. Marine who runs one of three nationwide websites that chronicle the sport.
Helping the movement among the nation's 16,400 high school cross country teams are the boys from Perham, Minn. With a population of nearly 3,000, this Otter Tail County town boasts one of the nation's best boys cross country teams.
That's according to Taylor's Xcnation.com cross country web site. It ranks Perham No. 1 in the small-school Division II rankings. The Yellowjackets are ranked No. 26 among all the nation's schools.
Taylor said he will have his eyes on Perham when it competes in Saturday's Minnesota Class 1A state meet in Northfield.
"It is possible they could become a top 10 team if they do really well at the state meet," Taylor said. "They are so close to being a top 10 team now. It is really remarkable for a school their size. That's the one team, out of all the teams in the country, that could do it."
The ranking of course is somewhat subjective, but don't be fooled for a moment that Taylor randomly picks his top 25 teams. Relying on his expertise in setting up computer models for the U.S. Marines, Taylor inputs thorough, complicated data that includes head-to-head competition, time spreads and team averages.
The computer spit out these Division II rankings: 1. Perham. 2. Monticello, Iowa. 3. Tatnall of Wilmington, Del. The computer spit out these overall rankings: 1. Christian Brothers Academy of New Jersey. ... 8. Stillwater, Minn. .... 20. Bismarck, N.D. ... 26. Perham.
"For the last three straight years, we have picked the boys and girls champion before the Nike national championships even occurred," said Taylor, who said 14 teams have surpassed a 90 percent ranking this year. "From 1970 to 2000, we calculate there have been only one or two teams who reach the 90th percentile a year."
And for the first time since Taylor began ranking teams in 2009, two teams have earned a perfect 1.0 score: the aforementioned Christian Brothers and North Central from Spokane, Wash.
In comparison, Bismarck - led by 13th-ranked Jake Leingang - has a .822 ranking. Stillwater, which will run on the same course as Perham on Saturday in the Class 2A state meet, has a .936 ranking. Perham has a .766 ranking.
Those three teams will compete at the Heartland Region meet Nov. 11 in Sioux Falls. Bismarck, Dowling of Des Moines, Iowa, and Stillwater are favored to capture the top two automatic berths for the Nike Nationals to be held Dec. 1 in Portland.
But even if Perham fails to qualify for nationals, Taylor said it could still wrap up the No. 1 ranking of his Division II poll with a strong showing at state.
The challenge for Jeff Morris' Perham boys isn't so much the Class 1A competition, but how their times will stack up against Stillwater, which will run the same course three hours after Perham in the 2A state meet.
"What will they do to close the gap against a Stillwater?" asks Taylor, who ran cross country in Lewiston, Idaho, 18 years ago. "Back when I was running, all you worried about was who was the best in the county, the city or at the most the state. Now the scope has increased. Now it's, 'How am I doing across the country?' "
All this nationwide exposure from Taylor's website and others like dyetrack.com and milesplit.com are good things for high school cross country, according to Bismarck coach Dave Zittleman.
"Those three sites are getting closer to picking the same teams," said Zittleman, whose 2008 boys team finished 14th at the Nike Nationals.
By the way, dyetrack.com and milesplit.com does not rank Perham in its all-school polls. Perham is on the watch list for milesplit.com.
"Perham is kind of the underdog," Zittleman said. "National rankings like this can definitely give their kids some extra motivation. Their times certainly may reflect that."
Perham's boys are certainly hoping so.
Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor
Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549