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Perham girls win second state title by a point

The Perham girls cross country team celebrates with its Class A Championship trophy at St. Olaf College. Participants were, front row, from left, Abby Tweeton, Ashley Hokanson, Caitlin Covington, Hailey Wegscheid, Mya Morris and Liz Birkeland. Second row, from left: coach Penny Birkeland, coach Brent Hanson, Emily VanWatermulen, Mary Wunderlich, Lauryn Rustad, coach Kay Morris and head coach Jeff Morris. Jason Groth/FOCUS

Heading into the final stretch, the Perham Yellowjackets were trailing second-ranked Winona Cotter by four team points. However, a final spurt from the back of the Yellowjacket pack helped them surge to the front, securing the Class A Championship by one point on Nov. 4 at St. Olaf College.

The Yellowjackets finished with 86 points, while Winona Cotter came in second with 87 points. Annandale finished third with 131 points. Stewartville and defending champion, Fairmont, rounded out the top five.

Winona Cotter was loaded at the top of their line up with the returning Ping sisters. They were led by Lauren Ping and the 2015 individual champion, Grace Ping. Those two ran back-to-back, finishing second and third, earning the top spots in the team scoring. The Yellowjackets had three runners in the top 30 overall as did Cotter. Cotter’s fourth runner, Aubrey Williams came in 38th overall, helping give Cotter the slight edge up front.

Hailey Wegscheid

But, it was Perham’s depth that enabled them to secure the win. Ashley Hokanson, Abby Tweeton, Mya Morris and Lauryn Rustad all finished ahead of Cotter’s fifth finishing runner. If anyone of those four slip behind the fifth runner or drop a spot, Cotter grabs the title.

“It just shows how much that cross country is a team sport,” Perham head coach Jeff Morris said. “If anybody doubts that it is a team sport, today showed that it was a team sport. We were five points down at the two-mile. We told the girls they had to move and they moved up. Our sixth and seventh runners beat Cotter’s fifth runner and if they don’t beat that fifth runner, they move two points ahead and we lose by one, instead of winning by one. It was awesome to see all seven girls come together and run that well.”

Math and Science Academy’s Tierney Wolfgram defended her title in record-breaking fashion. The ninth grader set a new state record, finishing with a time of 17 minutes, 31.6 seconds. She bested the former record holder in Grace Ping. Lauren Ping finished second, ending with a time of 18:19.7, while Grace Ping came in third at 18:27.5. Murray County’s Morgan Gehl finished fourth, while Luverne’s Tenley Nelson rounded out the top five.

Up front, Caitlin Covington led the way for the Yellowjackets. The junior runner earned all-state honors, finishing with a time of 19:25.4 for 19th place. She was followed closely by Liz Birkeland. The seventh-grader running her first state meet finished with a time of 19:41. 8. Following Birkeland was Hailey Wegscheid. Wegscheid finished with a time of 19:45.3, finishing in 29th place.

“It feels amazing because our team did so well and we worked together as a family,” Wegscheid said. “We planned to stay together as a group and we did that. It’s easier to run together than alone. We did the whole thing together and it worked out.”

The mindset of running for each other has been a theme with the Yellowjackets all season, who put in countless hours and miles, preparing for this moment.

“We are so close as a family,” Wegscheid said. “That was the only thing I was thinking about when I was finishing the race.”

It was the second state championship for Covington, Wegscheid, Hokanson and Tweeton. The four runners were members of the 2015 championship team.

“It’s really awesome being on a state winning team,” Covington said. “Not every team gets to experience that moment. It’s just awesome.”

Hokanson finished with a time of 20:10.0 for 50th place. Abby Tweeton came in 59th place at 20:14.6. Mya Morris came in 88th at 20:36.3, while Lauryn Rustad finished in 95th place at 20:44.6.

However, both Cotter and Perham had to wait out the results to become official, which featured several nervous moments of coaches and athletes checking twitter and the results page. Once it was announced, jubilation set in.

Mya Morris

“I thought there was a chance that we might have lost it,” Jeff Morris said. “I knew we closed pretty well, but Winona Cotter’s fifth girl and we were wondering if she would run what she has been running. She ran a 30 second personal record, which made it a little scarier. Just seeing them come down the home stretch, I knew it was going to be close. The sixth and seventh runners usually don’t play a part in the points, but it showed that all seven girls mattered today.”

Class A Girls Team Results

Perham 86, Winona Cotter 87, Annandale 131, Stewartville 137, Fairmont 165, Luverne 203, Maple Lake 211, Minnehaha Academy 219, Jordan 238, Lac Qui Parle Valley/Dawson Boyd 257, Belle Plaine 261, Eden Valley-Watkins 265, North Shore 266, Proctor 270, West Central Area 272, United North Central 347

Perham Individual Results

19 Caitlin Covington 19:25.4

27 Liz Birkeland 19:41.8

29 Hailey Wegscheid 19:45.3

50 Ashley Hokanson 20:10.0

59 Abby Tweeton 20:14.6

88 Mya Morris 20:36.3

95 Lauryn Rustad 20:44.6

Jason Groth

 Groth is a Minnesota Newspaper Association award-winning Sports Editor of the Perham Focus and the Wadena Pioneer Journal. Groth worked in Grand Rapids as the Sports Director at KOZY/KMFY radio for two years and prior to that he was the Sports Editor/Writer for the Grand Rapids Herald-Review for seven years. 

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