LITTLE FALLS – It can be difficult to wrap your head around the accomplishments of the Perham High School cross-country teams. The boys have been to the Class 1A state meet for 11 years in a row, with four state titles and five second-place finishes. The girls have qualified for state 10 consecutive years with two runner-up finishes. And that’s just the varsity teams.
Add in all the junior varsity and junior high runners for the Yellowjackets, and then attempt to wrap your arms around that entire group and get them all into one single photo. It’s not easy, but I managed to snap such a photo during last week’s 48th annual Lucky Lindy Invitational at Little Falls Country Club. The photo included 70 runners and three coaches wearing Perham yellow and black and big smiles.
The section titles, the state appearances, the state championships mean one thing. The number of kids who take part in cross-country at Perham means something else. It means coach Jeff Morris and his assistants – his wife Kay Morris and Brent Hanson – are doing more than telling runners how to run. The climate is inclusive and family-oriented, with equal does of training, fun and togetherness. It’s an outstanding example of what school activities can mean to a community and its students.
“I started building a philosophy around trying to create a culture for kids,” said Jeff Morris, a North Carolina native who coached for two years in that state before coming to Perham in 2002 (Kay is a Verndale native). “The two big things I want the kids to learn is that hard work is really hard and you need to have a positive mental attitude. If you do those two things you’ll enjoy the journey and have fun.”
When Morris arrived in Perham the cross-country program was small in numbers but with one outstanding runner. Gabriele Anderson was a junior on Morris’ first team, and she had three top eight finishes at state before running for the University of Minnesota and going on to become a professional distance runner.
The year before Morris arrived, the boys had finished last in their section meet; in his first year there weren’t enough girls to fill out a varsity team during the regular season. But in 2002 the boys went to state, beginning their 11-year run that continues today. In 2003 the girls qualified for state and have been back every year since. Two Yellowjackets have claimed individual state titles: Kevin Lachowitzer in 2006 and Maddie McClellan in 2009.
At last week’s Lucky Lindy meet, the Perham boys finished first by a wide margin over runner-up Bemidji and third-place Hopkins; both are 2A teams, as were the teams that finished fourth through ninth. Perham’s Keeghan Hurley was the individual champion in a course-record time of 15 minutes, 36.9 seconds. Sam Carlson of Bemidji finished second, followed by Perham’s Billy Beseman and Jayden Cullen. The Perham girls placed seventh, with ninth-grader Brynna Covington the top Yellowjacket in 20th place.
In the cross-country coaches association Class 1A rankings, the Perham boys are No. 1 and the girls are No. 4. Hurley is No. 2 among boys individuals, Cullen is No. 6 and Ben Sullivan is No. 11.
The Perham boys were honored as last season’s National High School Coaches Association Division II national champions; the division is for schools with enrollments of fewer than 500 students. The St. Cloud Cathedral boys team finished fourth in Division II; on the girls side Esko finished seventh. The rankings are based on computer power rankings.
That’s just further validation that the Yellowjackets are one of the state’s – and the nation’s – top cross-country programs. But again, what’s happening in Perham goes far beyond winning and losing.
“Being on the team and all of the girls always having my back, I always know that I’m not only running for myself but also for my teammates and my coaches and for my family, and that they’re all supportive,” said senior Lizzie Fudge. “I would never choose anything over cross-country and my team
“My girls definitely know how to push me and make me work as hard as I can, and that will definitely be a life skill.”
Hurley, who finished fifth at last year’s state meet, said, “This team is very family-oriented and we do support each other. And I think every team says it’s a family. I think the main thing with Perham cross-country is we try to maximize everyone’s gift. Whether it’s from junior high all the way up to the number one runner, if you have a dream we’re going to get you to it. We give you that chance. And with coach Morris and coach Kay, they help you all the way through.
“We expect the best. You go out and you give 100 percent, no matter what. And the dreams are so much higher; it’s not just make state, we expect to win state. We shoot big. We’ve been going for national titles now.”
The all-inclusive nature of the program extends beyond junior high students. There is a cross-country program for fifth- and sixth-graders, which Jeff Morris described as “lots of running games, lots of fun stuff.”
Morris, whose job titles in the school district also include math teacher and tech integrationist, maintains a first-class web site (www.perhamxc.com) for the cross-country program. The words atop the site are “Yellowjacket CC … You run … We fly…”
“They feel like this is a place where they can dream big, they’ll always be supported, they truly have fun,” Morris said. “At the end of the season we’ll have kids say it went too fast.”
--To see a Perham cross-country photo gallery, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 67
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 2,106
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
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