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John’s Journal: Season is Different, but They’re Ready to Run

An Attitude of Gratitude at Heron Lake-Okabena and Perham

Posted: Wednesday, August 19, 2020 - 12:00 PM

When autumn arrives in normal years, sports thoughts at Heron Lake-Okabena High School turn to football, volleyball and cross-country. But this is not a normal year and the small school in southwest Minnesota will not see any football games or volleyball matches this fall, since across the state those two sports have been delayed several months until the new “flex” season between winter and spring sports.

So the Wildcats’ only sport this fall is cross-country. The squad of 14 girls and boys started official workouts this week on the streets of Heron Lake (population 698) and Okabena (188) and the rural roads of Jackson County. The season is shorter than normal, there will be fewer competitions, no events with more than three teams and uncertainty about a postseason, but the Wildcats are ready to run.

“There might be some big-time adjustments, but we’re just as happy as heck that we get to compete,” said coach Gary Hildebrant. “It’s going to be OK.”

Hildebrandt has seen almost everything in his 35-year coaching career (he also has coached football, volleyball and track and field). He has coached cross-country for 24 years and this summer he was inducted into the Minnesota Cross-Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

“We’re just thankful we can get out and run,” said Hildebrandt, who on the first day of practice Tweeted a photo of the runners standing on a gravel road running between corn and soybean fields.

Two-hundred-fifteen miles north from Heron Lake and Okabena, Perham cross-country coach Jeff Morris is working under the same circumstances, albeit in a larger school that offers girls tennis and girls swimming and diving this fall.

Perham is a cross-country powerhouse. Both Yellowjackets squads captured Class 1A state championships last year, becoming the first school to win both crowns for three years in a row. The boys have eight state titles since their first in 2006 and the girls own four state championships, the first in 2015.

The Yellowjackets have 70 kids on the cross-country teams this fall. In a Tweet posted on Tuesday, Morris wrote: “Perham XC theme #Together … Our goal as a program this year is not to focus on what we think we have lost, but to embrace the opportunity to step into something new! We will focus on what we can control and NOT let our circumstances rob us from what can be the best season ever!!

With uncertainty about the postseason happening this fall, Morris said goals will be more short-term for the runners. “We’re going to go week to week,” he said.

With no large meets possible and travel limited under Covid-19 restrictions, three conferences have come together to form a schedule. The Heart of Lakes Conference (to which Perham belongs), Midstate Conference and Park Region Conference built a schedule with the 24 members schools gathering in groups of three on a rotating basis for varsity, JV and junior high races. One of those events will be called Friday Night Light, with varsity athletes carrying glowsticks as they run.

Morris said other fun sidelights will be added to meets, including a socially distanced egg toss after the runners complete the course.

During the opening meet for each team, Perham and University of Minnesota graduate Gabe (Anderson) Gruenwald, a cancer patient who died last year, will be honored. Last year Perham hosted a multi-team Brave Like Gabe Invitational as a fundraiser for the Brave Like Gabe Foundation. Those plans went out the door under this season’s restrictions, but Gabe will still be remembered.

At Heron Lake-Okabena, attempts to create a similar multi-conference schedule were not successful, but the Wildcats have a schedule. They are in the Red Rock Conference, in which not all schools offer cross-country.

We’ll see the same teams over and over, but we’re still competing,” Hildebrandt said. “We’re just thankful we can get out and run.”

Morris is equally grateful that the season is happening.

“I’m excited,” he said. “I’m excited about the new challenges. Fifty years from now I hope our kids can talk about what they did this year more than anything else.”

--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.


Heron Lake-Okabena cross-country

Heron Lake-Okabena cross-country.

“There might be some big-time adjustments, but we’re just as happy as heck that we get to compete. It’s going to be OK.”
Heron Lake-Okabena cross-country coach Gary Hildebrant
Perham cross-country

Perham cross-country.

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