Perham senior Jakob McCleary finished 16 seconds faster than any other Class A runner at the state cross country championships on Saturday at St. Olaf College. But the battle for first place was much closer than any results sheet would say.

As Nova Classical Academy’s Finn McCormick climbed up the final hill before the long straightaway towards the finish line, his legs gave out.

“I was maybe 20, 30 meters behind him when he first slipped,” McCleary said. “I was just turning the corner with 200 (meters) left, and he was just at the top of the hill. I would say 30-meters back. It would’ve been very close if he didn’t fall because he was dying. That was his game plan. He wanted to run away from me to wear down my legs. He definitely did his job. I was definitely hurting.”

McCleary passed McCormick shortly after and cruised the final 200-meters to a time of 16:09.64. Cross country is about pushing oneself within their limits. That’s precisely what McCleary did to win his first individual state championship in his final high school meet.

“I ran my race and did what I was supposed to do,” McCleary said. “I was going to sit and kick the whole race. I know that I have a better kick than him, so I knew he would try and run away with it. He pushed himself super hard. I pushed myself super hard. That’s just what this sport is. Sometimes it doesn’t turn out the way you want it. Sometimes stuff like what happens to days happens.”

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Nova Classical Academy's Finn McCormick runs the final 50 meters of the Class A state championship race with medical assistance after stumbling several times down the home stretch. His misfortunes allowed McCleary to cruise to his first ever state cross country title. (Jared Rubado / Perham Focus)
Nova Classical Academy's Finn McCormick runs the final 50 meters of the Class A state championship race with medical assistance after stumbling several times down the home stretch. His misfortunes allowed McCleary to cruise to his first ever state cross country title. (Jared Rubado / Perham Focus)

McCormick finished in eighth place, which was enough to earn Nova a team state championship over Perham by six points. McCormick fell multiple times on the final straightaway, but if he chose to stay down for no more than 15 seconds longer, Perham would have won its fourth consecutive Class A title.

All season, McCleary and McCormick sat in the top two spots in the Class A rankings and saw their final high school race as opponents went down to the wire. While it wasn’t the way either of them anticipated finishing their last high school race, their respect for one another shined through a bizarre end conclusion on the state’s most prominent stage.

“He’s a phenomenal runner, and he’s super strong,” McCleary said od McCormick. “He beat me earlier this season at (the Roy Griak Invitational). He edged me out a little bit there. He’s a great runner, and to have that strength to get up like he did after falling shows how strong he is. There are a lot of runners that wouldn’t have gotten up and finished like he did. For him to get back up and finish in the top 10 is awesome. If he wouldn’t have gotten up when he did his team would’ve fell. That’s strength right there.”

McCleary ends his storied high school career on the highest possible note. But in his time of celebration, he turned to his teammates and appreciated what they could accomplish. McCleary, the lone Perham senior, was proud of how his six teammates competed in their first race at state.

“It means a lot,” McCleary said of winning an individual state championship. “I would’ve liked to get the team championship as well. It’s tough that we didn’t, but I was the only one of us on the boys team that’s ran here before. This is everyone else’s first time. To get that close at your first state meet is so impressive.”

Perham head coach Jeff Morris was happy to see his leader finish with a blue ribbon around his neck.

“Just his intensity and his competitiveness,” Morris said on what McCleary meant to the Perham cross country program. “It’s awesome when you see somebody as competitive and as focused as he is. You want to bottle that up, but he lets it overflow in his personality to his teammates. They’ve caught the bug to focus, train hard and have fun. Jakob is the first person to have fun, but he’s so darn competitive.”

Finn McCormick and Jacob McCleary lead the pack of Class A boys runners at the state cross country meet on No. 6, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Perham Focus)
Finn McCormick and Jacob McCleary lead the pack of Class A boys runners at the state cross country meet on No. 6, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Perham Focus)

McCleary will run track in the spring as he tries to repeat as the 800-meter Class A champion. But for now, he’s going to look back on what he’s accomplished in cross country and how much being a Yellowjacket meant to him.

“I ended it with a bang,” McCleary said of finishing his career on top.” I’ve always pictured myself winning one of these in cross. I got one in track, but the cross one means everything. To end my career as a Yellowjacket with a state title just means a lot.”

“Reality is really setting in,” McCleary said on seeing his high school career come to an end. “I remember thinking a few weeks ago, ‘Oh, I have a few more races. I’ll think about that stuff after.’ Now it’s kind of just over. I’m going on to different things. I still have track season, so maybe I’ll go win a few more state titles there. It’s crazy to think that I’m a senior, and it’s over.”