Perham head cross country coach Jeff Morris was confident that he would have added two more state championships if Saturday's races were just a few meters longer.
The Perham girls finished with 109 team points, six behind first-place Staples-Motley. The Cardinals stunned the Class A field by ending the Yellowjackets' streak of three straight state titles.
"We were down 22 (points) at (the first mile)," Morris said. "At the two-mile, we were 12-points back. We finished six away from a state championship. We needed another 100 meters. I'm so proud of them. They ran so well."
"It's 5,000-meters, and it's just the way it goes," Morris said.
Eighth-grader Gracie Morris paced Perham with a time of 19:17.65, which was good enough for eighth place in her first time running at St. Olaf College.
"People don't realize, in this sport, how hard it actually is to make it on the podium," Morris said of his daughter Gracie. "We've been here 20 straight years, and I can count on two hands how many girls have been on the podium. Just to see her get up there, stick her nose in there, she was going for it. She was with the leaders. I'm so proud of her. You can get in those gaps, and it can go South pretty easily. She showed her grit and termination."
Quincy Anderson (20:10.82), Leelou Novotny (20:25.97), Liz Birkeland (20:30.02) and Kaia Starlz (20:56.53) all finished under 21 minutes. Morris was impressed to see his core group run as a unit to chase down the opposing runners as the race wore on.
"Just being confident," Morris said of the Perham girls strengthening their pack mentality. "We like to say, 'touch a teammate.' We said that right before the race. We want them to know they're not out there alone. They're in this together. That makes a big difference. When you're out there by yourself, and you're only thinking about yourself, it can really get to you. When you're thinking about your teammate, it makes it so much easier."
Avalee Brown (21:07.76) and Mia Lung (22:52.87) showcased the Yellowjackets' depth by finishing sixth and seventh within the team.
After missing out on a trip to St. Olaf in 2020, Saturday was a chance for some girls to get back to the thrill of competing for a state championship. For others, it was an opportunity to dip their toes in the water of what is an irreplaceable atmosphere.
"We have awesome girls like Quincy Anderson, Liz Birkeland and Kaia Sarlz who have been here before and set that example," Morris said. "Aspen, my other daughter, and Lauren Rustad, a captain that wasn't able to compete here this year, meshed together well with the girls who haven't been here. Next year, we're going to come here with so much experience. That makes it really fun."
"We have two or three girls that have run and have experience here," Morris said. "It's really tough when you come in, and you haven't run the state meet. For them to be as poised as they were was so awesome. I have not had a team that's been confident enough to do what they've been doing here. In the first mile, we looked at them and said, 'They haven't changed a thing."
Perham boys mirror girls\u0009
After senior Jakob McCleary finished his last race with an individual state championship, the remaining Yellowjackets closed the gap on to within six points of a fourth state title. Nova Classical Academy took home first place with a final score of 122, ending another Perham state title streak.
"We were down 50-some at the first mile," Morris said. "We were down 20-some at the second mile and finished six points back. They were moving. It's like day two of The Masters, where they call it 'moving ground.' They kept moving, and they kept making up points. They did a great job. They showed poise and experience. It was a lot of fun."
Sophomore Caden Doll followed up his impressive Section 8A championship meet with an all-state finish on Saturday with a time of 17:11.68. Doll took one of the last all-state spots in 24th place.
Doll is one of six Perham runners that ran at St. Olaf for the first time on Saturday. For a team that's made it to state 19 straight times, it was a new learning curve for the Yellowjackets to master.
"They got out a little more conservative than we wanted them to," Morris said of how the boys team started. "But in their first state meet, it's tough to judge. It's tough to go from finishing in the top ten, top 15 in all of these meets to being in 50th in a meet like this. You have to make a mental adjustment. Those six guys who never ran in a state meet have done such a tremendous job."
Bjorn Anderson (17:28.10), Micah Thompson (17:31.97) and Brayden Glorvigen (18:03.98) rounded out the top five for Yellowjackets. Carter Flatau (18:16.79) and Blake Swenson (19:07.94) also ran at St. Olaf.
Managing the state meet
In many ways, cross country is like a chess match. It's about mentally and physically making moves to set yourself up in a better position to be successful. For Perham, this weekend was more than a chance to defend its state titles. It was an opportunity to showcase its everlasting consistency in the face of inexperience.
"(Friday) night, they were all wondering why they were so tired when we were eating at Olive Garden," Morris said. "'Why do our legs feel dead?' They have to learn to handle those nerves. That's why getting down here is so important at a young age for these kids. It's a whole different emotion. It's the whole day of riding down on the bus, walking the course, staying in a hotel. They did a great job with all of it."
Only one senior ran between both Perham teams on Saturday. McCleary knows what coming up six points short of a state championship can do for a young group in the future.
"I think this motivates them more," McCleary said of taking second place as a team. "Winning a state title is great until you get relaxed. You have to keep pushing. You have to motivate your teammates more. I already heard Bjorn (Anderson) say he's got to train harder now. I think this is going to make them go to another level. They're going to picture Nova Classical Academy when they get back to work."
"They're already talking about how much this (second-place finish) is going to burn in their hearts when they train for next year," Morris said. "That's what Jakob gives to these guys, and he's such a great mentor to the kids."
Following both Class A races, teams and spectators gathered in a St. Olaf auditorium for the award ceremony. After Perham collected its hardware, Yellowjacket fans, teammates, parents and spectators gathered around to celebrate what was another successful day on the state's grandest stage.
"People always say their team is family, but this team it really is that," Morris said of both of his cross country teams. "This is these kids' friend group. They're friends outside and inside of school. They hang out in the summer. The parents are so supportive. What this shows is the consistency, year in and year out, of kids and parents."