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Three-sport star Jayden Cullen set for move to D-I at NDSU

Jayden Cullen, (No. 14) and teammate Keeghan Hurley take off at the starting gun of last seasson's 1600m race at the state track and field meet. Robert Williams/FOCUS

PERHAM — Of all the recent Division I athletic recruits to come out of Perham, senior Jayden Cullen is embarking into unmatched territory.

This spring Cullen will complete a series of nine straight trips to a state meet or tournament stretching back to his first sophomore season.

No other Perham athlete has qualified for so many.

Add to it, as a freshman, Cullen was an alternate on the 2010-11 state champion cross country team.

Cullen has done so as a three-sport star in swimming and track to compliment the immense success he and the Yellowjackets have had in cross country and he has done so with his own unique brand of mental preparation that works well with both a relaxed demeanor and a healthy dose of intensity.

“I try to relax right before I go and just try to focus and get absorbed into it and hyperfocus on it,” Cullen said. “I remember a couple swim meets where I’ve let myself get too much pressure and then I’ll relax and do better. My first state cross country meet I let the pressure get to me a lot and I didn’t do as well as I wanted to.”

“He is one of the most intense athletes I have coached,” Head Cross Country Coach Jeff Morris said. “He is not afraid to compete. I remember his junior year at Little Falls in cross county, which was a break out race for him as a runner. Right before the mile mark up the hill he decides to take over the lead from three of the best runners in the state. He has complete respect for his competition, but never fears competition. Every time I watch Jayden run I look for fireworks.”

Despite the team nature of cross country, much of the competition is inside the runner’s head and he credits Morris with finding a way to do that.

“A lot of cross country is fighting negative thoughts,” said Cullen. “Morris just puts this love of running into people. Some people can obtain that on their own but Morris puts it into people. That’s probably one of the big reasons why the school is so successful.”

Cullen has turned those inner workings into positives finishing 33rd overall at state XC as a sophomore, eighth as a junior and fifth as a senior, all the while being part of three state championship teams, one runner-up and two national championship teams.

That is enough success for one student-athlete in a complete career. It’s just been what has occurred in the fall season for the class of 2014’s most complete athlete.

“His intensity is so contagious and he pushes himself and his teammates to the limits,” Morris said. “Then after a race, Jayden is the ultimate team player. He cheers just as intensely for his teammates as he competes. It is the coolest thing when your athlete enjoys seeing his teammates’ success as his own.”

In swimming, Cullen has ended his winter seasons in Minneapolis all three years with state finishes in the 500-freestyle. His senior year, he also qualified in the 200-freestyle after setting a new school record in the event.

His approach to the season, however, was of a team mindset, made more important by the fact the boys’ swim team began the year with only a handful of swimmers. Besides being the top swimmer on the team, he was the top reason Perham found success going into meets where participation numbers alone dictated winning as a team was next to impossible.

The Yellowjackets needed something to fight for in the pool.

“A lot of the guys got a lot faster in freestyle which I liked a lot and that also helped with breaking the school record in the 400 (relay). This year for my individual events, I was more focused on the 400 because I knew those guys really wanted to do that. Even though we didn’t make it to state, we still got the school record and we were super happy about that.”

Cullen set the record with teammates Todd Brown, Jr., Ben Sullivan and Patrick Murphy.

“Jayden has this way about him,” Head Boys Swimming Coach Trent Swanson said. “Jayden leads by example during practice, but at the bigger meets he will also fire up the guys. He does not seek the spotlight, he doesn’t glorify himself in any way that I have seen. Although I respect that out of a teenager, I think he ought to stand in the spotlight that he has created and created with entirely his own work ethic. We as coaches can push, train, teach and expect an athlete to do certain things. Jayden does everything that I ask him to do, but then we will tweak it to match his personal style and get the most efficient stroke, turn and start by combining his style with the textbook style. In my mind, that is one of the keys that makes Jayden an exceptional athlete.”

Cullen was an “Iron Man” in swimming qualifying for sections in every event, which showcases his command of both speed and stamina. For Cullen, his athletic ability is perfect for swimming and running.

“To actually qualify in each event is special,” Swanson said.

Spring season brings track and field where Cullen will try to build on a sixth place finish in the 4x800 in 2011 with Billy Beseman, Nick Carignan and Dalton Dahms, followed up by an eighth place finish in the 1,600-meters last year.

Which race or races Cullen will master for state this coming season is dependent on one thing - running.

“I’ve been telling people I want to go try and win something,” he said. “It depends on what events I run. I’m guessing I’ll be in the two-mile. I think we can put a few guys under the state time.”

That is an understatement.

The top two finishes in the section qualify for state, along with runners who run under the state qualifying time. Whichever events Cullen chooses, expect top finishes to complete an unrivaled Yellowjacket career.

Cullen received a scholarship to run at North Dakota State University next year in cross country and indoor/outdoor track and field.

The Bison track teams have made big noise on the Division I level to compliment the highly-publicized successes of the football team (three straight national titles) and the mens’ basketball team, which just missed a spot in the sweet sixteen last week.

“I was told it was a good school to go to,” Cullen said tongue-in-cheek. “I started looking into it and thought it was a good school.”

Cullen will major in computer science looking to take advantage of the technical opportunities for internships and employment in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

Local Infusion at NDSU

For Bison running, Cullen will arrive just in time to fill the big shoes left by Perham native Maddie McClellan who has one season left of track.

“He will always compete well in championship events, very similar to a Maddie McClellan,” said Morris. “He plays the hand he is dealt and does not worry about the things out of his control. He focuses on what he can control - his attitude and effort - which is always where it needs to be.”

McClellan just completed an incredible indoor track season keeping Perham runners at the forefront of the highest level of college running.

Maddie was the 2014 Summit League most valuable player after winning the mile, the 3,000m and 5,000m at the League Championships.

“I was ready to run well so I wasn’t surprised that I was getting my PRs (personal records) but I didn’t expect to go win all three or anything,” McClellan said. “So, that was pretty exciting.”

McClellan has set an understandable path to her success having battled through injuries and coming from Perham, where she was a four-time all-state selection and two-time state champion, she had to learn what it was like to run and not win everything.

“My little brother and some of my friends who don’t know a whole lot about track were so used to seeing me win in high school that when I started college they were all, ‘So, did you win?’”

“No, I didn’t win.” McClellan told them with a laugh.

“I’ve definitely worked my way up there and it was exciting to win a conference title for indoor because I never had before.”

McClellan, an English major, has one season of track and field left after redshirting this spring. She worked her schedule around to have a fifth season in track while completing her senior year in cross country this season to accommodate student-teaching next fall.

Wednesday, she was named the Summit League Indoor Track Athlete of the Year.

McClellan was a top three XC runner and aided the Bison in defending their Summit League conference title this year.

With all the success in numerous sports at NDSU, especially football and basketball, the accomplishments of both the track and cross country teams have been overlooked.

This has been publicly noted by Ashley Tingelstad, a Bison teammate and thorn in the side of the Yellowjackets during her stellar high school career at Lake Park-Audubon and East Grand Forks.

“I don’t know if people expect it from us,” Tingelstad said. “It is kind of frustrating. I’m not taking anything from the basketball team because what they’re doing is awesome and I’m very, very proud of them, but I wish we got half of the recognition they get for that.”

“I definitely know what she’s talking about,” said McClellan. “Of course, football is the focus and people get more excited for that than for track but I think that what we have and what we’ve done is pretty special and it’s pretty difficult to do. I don’t think everyone knows about it, so I definitely understand what she is saying. For me, I love track and it’s important to me so whoever wants to care about it can care about it.” McClellan laughed.

Sense of humor and a Division I level of intensity is something all three of these runners share.

Tingelstad defended her Summit League title in the 400m and was part of the 4x400 team that qualified for the NCAA Division I Indoor Championships in Albuquerque, where Tinglestad and teammates Morgan Milbrath, Ashley Heinze and Paige Stratioti finished 11th in the country.

The path to such a high-level of success was similar to McClellan’s, as Tingelstad has battled shin splints and other injuries during her career, as well. One cannot just show up to the track and expect success. It’s all work all the time.

There is a daily process to achieve the level of success McClellan and Tingelstad have and it is solid advice for those moving on to college like Cullen.

“With track, every day, on and off the track, what you do plays such a role in your success,” Tingelstad said. “You definitely have to have a passion and drive to do it. Your success doesn’t come down to one game or one shot. It’s on you. I knew going to college that my times would be better, but I didn’t think it would be as significant. Making it to nationals - that was crazy. It’s so hard to do.”

Tingelstad will finish her career this spring during the outdoor season leaving a big hole in the Bison lineup. McClellan will do the same in 2015 when she wraps up her career.

Cullen has the exciting future of four to five years of running at NDSU, an opportunity both of these ladies took advantage of and made their own.

In the end, the three will all meet the same conclusion.

“I never want to hang up my spikes,” said Tingelstad.

For all three runners, there is still plenty of time to enjoy the ride.

Robert Williams

Sports Editor at the Detroit Lakes Tribune. Williams worked prior as the Sports Editor in Perham for the Focus, a Forum Communications newspaper, from 2010-14. 

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