The Perham Yellowjacket Girls Cross Country running team entered the season with a target on its back. That's only expected when you win the Class A Championship the previous year, hold the No. 1 ranking in the state and have two state ranked runners on your team.
The Yellowjackets learned quickly what it was like to have that target on them, and have used that as motivation in seeking their second consecutive Class A Championship this Saturday.
Perham Head Coach Jeff Morris said his biggest fear for this team was that it would fall into complacency after winning last year's championship.
"I have never seen a girls team more hungry and more excited to be able to defend this," Morris said. "I think they know the target is on their back, and they are pretty excited about it. The mentality of us is not to go out there and beat all the other teams. Our mentality is to go out there and run as fast as we can and make it so special and so fast that if anyone beats us, hat's off to them."
So far that mentality has paid off for the Yellowjackets. The team has won six meets, including the Section 8A Championship and the Heart O'Lakes Conference Championship. Morris has said that the team's first meet in Moorhead was an eye opener.
"Their mentality in training has been completely different from that moment on," Morris said. "They have looked at every workout and every run with some seriousness. They have put a lot of miles on this summer, and sometimes you can put those miles on without passion. That hunger and passion inside of them woke up at that Moorhead meet."
The Yellowjackets have been led by senior Brynnan Covington. She captured the Section 8A Individual title this year and has built upon a strong junior season with an impressive senior season. She climbed up the rankings during the season, now holding the No. 2 spot individually behind Tierney Wolfgram of the Math and Science Academy.
"It's kind of exciting because you know you can do anything that you set your mind to," Covington said. "I know coming into the race I'm ranked second, and there is one girl that's pretty far ahead of me. I'm going to have that mindset that I can run with that runner, and hopefully we will see what happens. I'm going to try my hardest to run the race I know I'm capable of."
Caitlin Covington finished fourth at the section meet and is ranked in the top 10 as well. Ashley Hokanson earned a top 10 finish, placing eighth, while Hailey Wegscheid was 14th. Abby Tweeton came in 15th place, while Evalyn McCleary ended in 22nd place. Mary Wunderlich rounds out the field for Perham in 27th place.
"I'm really excited because it's my first year actually running. Last year, I was an alternate. This year I'm excited to run with the team and see how well I can do," McCleary said. "I was really happy with the team."
McCleary said she is nervous but familiar with the course. She was at the state meet last year and participated when the team competed at the St. Olaf Showcase earlier in the season.
"I just hope that I can try and close the gap between me and the other girls," McCleary said. "I just want to go out there and have us all do our best. It's not about winning, it's about going out there knowing that we gave it our all."
The tournament has a lot of a familiar faces from last year's meet, though the Yellowjackets have not seen many of those during the season. It will be a chance for the Yellowjackets to face Fairmont again. Fairmont edged the Yellowjackets at the Milaca Mega Meet, when the Yellowjackets were without one of their top five runners.
"It's kind of scary," Covington said. "We all have the target on our back now. All these teams are looking just to beat us. It's going to be interesting to see what happens. We are all going to have to be performing the best we can, which I'm not worried about because I know we will."
Along with Perham, Annandale, Trinity School at River Ridge, Luverne, Fairmont, Lac qui Parle Valley/Dawson-Boyd, Lanesboro/Fillmore Central, Proctor, Ely, Lake City and Eden Valley Watkins will return from last year's state meet.
This year's individual race will feature a new champion. Winona Cotter's Grace Ping has moved from Minnesota and will not be back to defend her title. Carlton's Erica Fox is the highest returning qualifier after finishing fourth last year. Wolfgram finished 10th last year and is the top ranked runner in the state, heading into the Class A Championship.
The girls cross country race begins at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 4 at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.