The Perham Cross Country team is no stranger to pressure. They were back-to-back Class A Champions, but they haven’t faced the type of pressure they were facing at the 2019 Class A Championships at St. Olaf.

The Perham girls set the table by winning the title by 35 points, while the boys captured the title by eight points, becoming the first program in Minnesota history to sweep the titles for the third consecutive year.

“It’s just incredible. It’s fun for the kids to experience this together,” Perham head coach Jeff Morris said. “When the girls got done, they were so excited and to have the guys feel that pressure and to come through was pretty amazing.”

Both teams came in ranked No. 1 in the state and the girls set the table with a strong performance across the board. They were led by Class A All-State runners Liz Birkeland and Aspen Rohde. Birkeland finished in 14th place at 19 minutes, 22.5 seconds, while Rohde claimed the last All-State spot with a time of 19:37.5 for 25th place.

“We knew it was really close, so we knew we had to run our best to do what we wanted to do,” Birkeland said after the race.

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Perham's Liz Birkeland pushes towards the finish line of the Class A Championships. Birkeland helped Perham to its third straight Class A Championship with a 14th place finish. Jason Groth/FOCUS
Perham's Liz Birkeland pushes towards the finish line of the Class A Championships. Birkeland helped Perham to its third straight Class A Championship with a 14th place finish. Jason Groth/FOCUS

Rohde said she was running for her team, and her goal was to pick off and pass every person that she could.

That plan worked throughout for the Yellowjackets as they made a surge toward the front of the pack during the mid point of the race. Luverne finished in second with 138 points, while Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted was third with 154 points. Murray County Central was fourth, and Staples-Motley was fifth.

Morgan Gehl captured the individual title with a time of 17:53.5 for Murray County Central. Nevis’ Jade Rypkema came in second with a time of 18:20.2.

Wadena-Deer Creek’s Kira Sweeney captured seventh place honors with a time of 19:02.4.

The young Yellowjackets core did everything they needed to do according to Morris.

“When they were at the starting line, I could tell they were nervous. They were so nervous what everyone thought and what would people think if they didn’t win.” Morris said. “I reminded them that it was about you, running for each other. It matters in your eyes, not what it matters in everyone’s eyes. It’s a good thing for kids to learn because we do things because that’s what other people want us to do. I told them to do it for you and do it because you want to do it together.”

Mya Morris came in 34th with a time of 19:50.1, while Quincy Anderson came in with a time of 19:57.9 for 42nd place, while Kaia Starzl finished with a time of 20:25.3. Lauryn Rustad finished with a time of 20:40.7 for 101st place. Abby Tweeton came in with a time of 20:49.0 for 106th place.

The Perham boys accomplished their mission by a narrow margin. Perham finished with 75 points, while West Central Area was on their heels with 83 points. St. James finished in third place, while Lac qui Parle Valley/Dawson-Boyd came in fourth with 182 points and Staples-Motley finished with 184 points.

“The pressure they must have felt in that moment,” Morris said about the boys team before their race. “I realized it was going to be tough. West Central Area is really good. I don’t think people realize it’s hard because sometimes people think we are just always up there. West Central Area is a heck of a team and every time we run against each other, we bring out the best in each other. I knew it was going to be tough.”

Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin’s Geno Uhrbom won the individual title for the second straight year with a time of 15:27.6.

Perham had a trio of All-State runners with Jakob McCleary finishing fourth, followed by Brandon O’Hara in eighth and Bailey Evenson in 15th place.

Perham's Jakob McCleary takes a look at the finish line as he tries to hold off Staples-Motley's Hunter Klimek. McCleary finished fourth and helped lead the Yellowjackets to the Class A Championship for the third straight year. Jason Groth/FOCUS
Perham's Jakob McCleary takes a look at the finish line as he tries to hold off Staples-Motley's Hunter Klimek. McCleary finished fourth and helped lead the Yellowjackets to the Class A Championship for the third straight year. Jason Groth/FOCUS

“It feels really good. It’s the culmination of months and even years of hard work that we put in together and staying consistent and humble at the same time,” O’Hara said after the race. O’Hara is one of four seniors that have been part of multiple state championships for Perham.

McCleary surged with a time of 15:48.7, while O’Hara followed with a time of 16:06.9. Evenson after a quick start battled in the middle, but came on strong at the end and finished with a time of 16:26.3.

Carson Hespe, the lone junior, finished with a time of 16:47.4 for 38th place, while Chase Belka came in 49th place with a time of 16:57.2. Owen Werner finished in 58th place with a time of 17:07.2, while Tesfaye Young finished in 82nd place with a time of 17:20.2.

Morris compared the feeling of winning three straight championships to the feeling of Christmas morning.

“I have to take it in. It’s like Christmas when you wake up and open everything,” Morris said. “You are kind of like what just happened. It’s just awesome. I’m so glad I get to share it with my wife and my kid which made it even more special, and the whole community being here.”

Check back for more from the Class 1A Championships.

Class A Boys Championship

Team Results

Perham 75, West Central Area 83, St. James 154, Lac qui Parle Valley/Dawson-Boyd 182, Staples-Motley 184, Nova Classical Academy 200, Minnehaha Academy 220, Lake City 228, Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin 235, East Grand Forks 239, St. Cloud Cathedral 264, Ely 271, Mankato Loyola/Cleveland 282, Heritage Christian Academy 287, Lewiston-Altura/Rushford-Peterson 321, Redwood Valley 352

Individual Top 10

1 Geno Uhrbom, G/NK, 15:27.6; 2 Emmet Anderson, S-M, 15:42.6; 3 Jacob Bright, WCA, 15:43.8; 4 Jakob McCleary, PER, 15:48.7; 5 Hunter Klimek, S-M, 15:49.7; 6 Cameron Stocke, Virginia, 15:51.1; 7 Luke Olson, Ely, 16:04.5; 8 Brandon O’Hara, PER, 16:06.9; 9 Jack Vankempen, WCA, 16:16.2; 10 Henry Snider, Mounds Park, 16:19.8.

Perham Individual Results

4 Jakob McCleary, 15:48.7; 8 Brandon O’Hara, 16:06.9; 15 Bailey Evenson, 16:26.3; 38 Carson Hespe, 16:47.4; 49 Chase Belka, 16:57.2; 58 Owen Werner, 17:07.2; 82 Tesfaye Young, 17:20.2.

Class A Girls Championship

Team Results

Perham 103, Luverne 138, Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted 154, Murray County Central 165, Staples-Motley 171, Lake City 180, Albany 190, Pequot Lakes 197, Stewartville 205, Mesabi East 243, Fairmont 258, Providence Academy 261, Hawley 279, Belle Plaine 280, Blake 312, St. Paul Academy and Summit School 321.

Individual Top 10 Results

1 Morgan Gehl, MCC, 17:53.5; 2 Jade Rypkema, Nevis, 18:20.2; 3 Tenley Nelson, Luverne, 18:27.1; 4 Ava Hill, Mesabi East, 18:39.9; 5 Addison Hoof, Mayer Lutheran, 18:46.8; 6 Kyanna Burton, S-M, 18:47.2; 7 Kira Sweeney, WDC, 19:02.4; 8 Calia Chaney, 19:02.6; 9 Madeline Kelly, Providence Academy, 19:03.8; 10 Jacey Majerus, Lake City, 19:05.7.

Perham Individual Results

14 Liz Birkeland, 19:22.5; 25 Aspen Rohde, 19:37.5; 34 Mya Morris, 19:50.1; 42 Quincy Anderson, 19:57.9; 76 Kaia Starzl, 20:25.3; 101 Lauryn Rustad, 20:40.7; 106 Abby Tweeton, 20:49.0.