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Cross Country Concludes Morgan Gehl Medals at State Meet

Justin Clarke Improves on His Second Trip

NORTHFIELD, MN - A few short months ago, cross country runners across the state of Minnesota were literally sweating it out at the first meet of the season at the end of August.  This past Saturday, many were bundled with extra clothes to stay warm at the start line before the state meet at St Olaf College in Northfield.  Morgan Gehl and Justin Clarke of the Murray County Central/Fulda team were two of those runners.  Both were making a return trip to the season finale.  For Gehl it was her third trip in as many seasons and for Clarke it was his second.  Both represented the Rebels well as Gehl ran a perfect race to improve on last year’s medal performance and finished a spectacular fourth place overall while Clarke also improved on his first experience and ran a strong race.

Morgan Gehl had a storybook season for the Rebels.  The Fulda native joined the team in her 7th grade year and after running a few junior high races, graduated quickly to the varsity ranks and made the state meet in her first try and medaled as an eighth grader in her second effort.  This season the freshman won 9 of 11 races, captured the individual conference title while leading her team to the Red Rock Conference championship and dominated the Section 3A meet.  No longer a “hidden treasure”, Gehl was a fixture in the state rankings throughout the season and backed it up with an amazing run last Saturday to once again stand on the podium with the state’s best.  After posting an eighth best finish last year with the state’s best in 19:25, Gehl took nearly a minute off of that finish and came home 4th place overall with an incredible 18:35 5,000 meters.  The Class A girls race featured 174 runners.  Coach Dominick Damm was impressed, but not surprised.  “Now that I know Morgan a little better I have found that when the pressure is on she really shows up.  Her training told me she was ready.”  Gehl herself said that her last two years at state taught her how to run an even smarter race.  “The competition gets tougher and tougher every year.  I was hoping to make it in the top five and the competition I had this year helped me run better.”  Gehl was also quick to support the ones who supported her throughout the season and at the meet.  “My MCC teammates, boys and girls and their families and my family, I received support from them all and it meant a lot to me.”  Coach Damm shared what his final words with Gehl were just before the start of the 1pm race on Saturday, “The last thing I said as I ran off was to run her own race and to be thinking about her pace for the first mile.  The first mile at the state meet can ruin your entire race if you go out too fast, but if you want to be in a position to finish in the top 10 you need to be up far enough that you are not fighting traffic the whole time.”  Gehl did just that and stayed up front the entire time.  Her closest pursuer was Luverne’s top runner in Tenley Nelson.  Nelson finished 5th overall, but 15 seconds behind Gehl.  The two battled a number of times throughout the season, with each one getting the better of the other at different meets.  It was Gehl, however, outdueling her at the home meet in Slayton in late September and most importantly at both the section and state meets.  Tierney Wolfgram, a freshman was the individual winner in a mind blowing time of 17:31.  Sisters Lauren and Grace Ping from Cotter were 2nd and 3rd overall.  Gehl was just eight seconds behind Grace Ping.  As far as to what keeps her motivated after so much early success and hardware from three seasons in the sport, Gehl kept it simple in her response, “I love to run, God put that in me. I would like to improve my times each year.”

Justin Clarke was back for a second time to the state championships.  The sophomore made the 2016 event as just a freshman and returned this season after leading his team to a runner up finish in the Red Rock Conference meet.  Clarke was the top runner on the boys squad again this season after being edged out by teammate Nate Everson at the opener in Mountain Lake.  Clarke went on to be the Rebels first finisher in every meet after that including another all conference performance to begin the post season.  After securing one the of the last two qualifying spots at the section meet, Clarke put together another great state run to improve by four places and six seconds from last year’s event.  Speaking of his trip to state this year, Clarke said, “My state experiences have been about the same.  Both were memorable and exciting. I enjoy each of the traditions from the practice the day before to the Old Spaghetti Factory supper the night before. I felt more prepared this year since I knew what I was getting myself into. I knew I had to watch my pace that first mile and catch everyone through the second and third mile. I was able to stay at 5:20 on the first mile and then wanted and catch other runners on the third mile hill at the back of the course.”  That’s exactly what Coach Damm was hoping for out of Clarke.  “My discussion with Justin was very similar to what it was with Morgan.  While they had different goals in the race, Justin needed to run smart and not get too caught up in the first mile sprint.  I told him to have fun and make sure he was thinking during the race.”  Clarke has often gotten out to a quick start as a young runner, but his endurance along with a very good finishing kick has set him apart.  His 17:29 finish was good for 85th place on the day amongst 176 runners.  Speaking of the spirited atmosphere of cross country meets and especially the state event, Clarke said, “I greatly appreciate having my friends and family there to cheer me on. Running past the hundreds and hundreds of people and hearing the a section scream your name is so motivating. Cross country is a sport for both team players and individuals and will only better you, that’s why I love it.”

In team competition it was the Perham boys and girls sweeping the Class A races.  The Fairmont girls team placed 5th overall and right behind them were the champions of Section 3A, the Luverne Cardinals in 6th.  3A runner up Lac Qui Parle Valley/Dawson Boyd came home in 10th of 16 teams.  In the Class AA team championships it was the Marshall Tigers placing an impressive 7th place.  Led by Section 3A individual champion Keiser Freetley, the LQPV/DB boys team followed their section title up with a solid 4th place team finish at state.  Freetley was 4th overall with an amazing 16:04 finishing time.  Section runner up Mountain Lake Area was 14th out of 16 teams.  MLA’s Dalton Piotter and Nathan Runck were 50th and 53rd overall individually.   

Area Runners Competing Individually at State

Brady Henning/Adrian 61st 17:19

Adam Koller/Worthington (AA) 76th 16:40

Angel Martens/Pipestone 108th 20:53

Also competing in the Class AA meet was Gabe Smit from Prior Lake, MN.  Smit has local ties to Murray County as he is the son of Tim Smit and Amy Totzke.  As a freshman, Smit qualified for the meet with a great run at sections and finished a very impressive 69th out of 176 runners with a time of 16:35.

While the season is now complete, Coach Damm will turn his attention to the spring track season, but can’t help to look forward to next fall already.  “I am very excited for next year as both teams should be very strong.  We are graduating seniors from both squads but we also have some upcoming underclassmen that might be able to fill those shoes.  If everything works out like it does in my head, we should be one of the top teams in the section for both boys and girls.”