In early August, the Minnesota State High School League wasn’t sure if there would be a cross country season this fall because of COVID-19 concerns.

The MSHSL decided to hold an abbreviated season with all competitions limited to three teams. Although section meets were approved, the MSHSL decided not to hold state meets this year.

Despite not being able to use the season to build for a chance to run at state, United North Central head coach Nick Jasmer was just happy his teams were given the opportunity to compete.

Twelve girls and seven boys earned letters for the Warriors this season. Leading the girls were seniors Kate Hendrickson and Lora Isaacson; juniors Gabby Hrdlicka, Kaarin Lehto, Alessandra Matson, Hope Shepersky and Rachael Smith; freshman Kaylee Westberg; eighth graders Anjalie Aho and Mattea Smith; and seventh graders Joanna Lehto and Miley Westberg. Comprising the boys team were seniors Andreas Aho and Sam Jackola; juniors Christian Johnson and Connor Korvela; and freshmen Henry Hultberg, Wesley Hodge and Gauge Carstensen.

The Warriors took advantage of having a season as the girls finished first in two meets and added four runner-up showings while the boys took first in one meet and had one runner-up finish while running incomplete in four meets. UNC hosted three of the six regular-season triangular meets at the Menahga High School.

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In the season opener at Menahga, the UNC girls finished third with 40 points with Aho (second), Kaarin Lehto (third), Hendrickson (fifth), Hrdlicka (14th), Matson (16th) and Shepersky (19th) leading the way. The boys had an incomplete team with only Korvela (seventh) and Johnson (eighth) running. Wadena-Deer Creek took first in the girls meet with 33 points while Ottertail Central was third with 48 points. OTC won the boys meet with 15 points as W-DC also had an incomplete team.

The UNC girls took first at the second meet at Menahga with 19 points to finish ahead of Pine River-Backus (38) and Nevis (incomplete). Aho (second), Kaarin Lehto (third), Hendrickson (fourth), Hrdlicka (seventh), Matson (eighth), Mattea Smith (11th) and Kaylee Westberg (12th) comprised the varsity team. Nevis won the boys meet with 17 points and Pine River-Backus was second with 38 points. UNC had only four runners with Aho (fourth), Korvela (fifth), Johnson (ninth) and Jackola (17th) competing.

West Central Area swept both titles at its home triangular with the boys scoring 15 points and the girls scoring 26 points. The Warriors finished third with 69 points in the boys meet behind Aho (ninth), Korvala (10th), Johnson (15th), Jackola (16th) and Hodge (20th) while the girls were second with 38 points as Aho (second), Kaarin Lehto (fourth), Hendrickson (seventh), Hrdlicka (10th), Mattea Smith (15th), Kaylee Westberg (17th) and Matson (20th) led the way. Breckenridge/Wahpeton was second in the boys meet with 57 points and third in the girls meet with 60 points.

In the third and final meet at Menahga, Pequot Lakes won both titles. Aho (third), Kaarin Lehto (seventh), Hendrickson (ninth), Hrdlicka (10th), Joanna Lehto (12th), Mattea Smith (16th) and Matson (17th) led UNC to runner-up honors with 41 points in the girls meet while Aho (sixth), Korvala (seventh), Jackola (11th), Hodge (18th) and Hultberg (19th) led the Warriors to third place with 61 points. Pequot Lakes won the girls meet with 24 points as Long Prairie-Grey Eagle took third with 68 points and Pequot Lakes compiled 19 points to win the boys meet as LP-GE followed with 58 points.

UNC swept the titles at the Pillager triangular with the boys compiling 22 points and the girls tallying 21 points. Aho (second), Korvela (third), Jackola (fourth), Johnson (sixth), Carstensen (seventh), Hodge (13th) and Hultberg (15th) ran for the boys while Aho (second), Kaarin Lehto (third), Hendrickson (fourth), Joanna Lehto (fifth), Hrdlicka (seventh), Mattea Smith (10th) and Matson (15th) ran for the girls. LP-GE was second in the boys meet with 33 points as Pillager ran incomplete and Pillager took second in the girls meet with 48 points as LP-GE was third with 63 points.

The Warriors concluded the regular season with a pair of runner-up finishes at Wadena. Aho finished first in the boys meet while Jackola (fourth), Carstensen (seventh), Hodge (13th) and Hultberg (16th) led UNC to 41 points to trail Lake Park-Audubon (27) and finish ahead of New York Mills (53). In the girls race, Aho led the pack with Kaarin Lehto (seventh), Hendrickson (ninth), Joanna Lehto (11th), Hrdlicka (13th), Mattea Smith (14th) and Kaylee Westberg (15th) following. LP-A took first with 23 points as New York Mills ran incomplete.

Anjalie Aho and Andreas Aho earned all-conference honors at the Park Region Conference meet at Wadena.

Aho captured the conference title in leading the UNC girls to fourth place with 101 points. Wadena-Deer Creek claimed the conference title with 25 points while Ottertail Central (61) and Pillager (68) followed. Trailing UNC were Ashby-Brandon-Evansville (173) and Parkers Prairie (180). Bertha-Hewitt, New York Mills and Pine River-Backus had incomplete teams. Also running for the Warriors were Joanna Lehto (21st), Hrdlicka (24th), Mattea Smith (26th), Miley Westberg (29th), Kaylee Westberg (31st) and Rachael Smith (39th).

For the boys, Aho earned all-conference honors by placing ninth as UNC fielded an incomplete team. Also running for the Warriors were Carstensen (39th), Hodge (51st) and Hultberg (58). OTC won the conference title with 53 points with ABE (59), Parkers Prairie (71), Bertha-Hewitt (93), W-DC (107), Pine River-Backus (123), New York Mills (239) and Pillager (244) following.

The Warriors concluded the season at the Section 8A meet at Bagley. Aho was the runner-up in the girls meet in leading UNC to seventh place with 216 points. Rounding out the team for UNC (which ran without Kaarin Lehto and Hendrickson) were Joanna Lehto (40th), Hrdlicka (54th), Miley Westberg (67th), Mattea Smith (69th), Kaylee Westberg (71st) and Rachael Smith (113th). Perham (56) and Hawley (69) topped the 22-team field. In the boys race, Aho (30th), Carstensen (120th) and Hodge (123rd) competed for the Warriors. Perham (50) and East Grand Forks (87) were the top teams.

Even though the state meet was canceled due to COVID-19, a substitute state meet was organized where runners and teams that would have qualified for the MSHSL meet were invited to participate. Anjalie Aho accepted the invitation and finished 11th out of 91 Class A runners at the TCRC Cross Country Showcase at Atwater to cap off the season.

“I thought the season went just fine for being as unusual as it was. While we did miss competing at bigger meets with more teams, the smaller meets weren't all that bad either. We still were able to run against some pretty good competition,” said Jasmer. “We were very satisfied with our runners' progress. Every day of practice, and especially the meets, we could tell that our runners were getting faster. It turned out to be a pretty good season of progress for us.”

Even though the Warriors will graduate four seniors, Jasmer is counting on the boys and girls teams to be competitive once again next fall.

“They (the seniors) were leaders that we are greatly going to miss. They knew how to work hard while still being able to have fun and they are competitors at heart. Our program will greatly miss them and we will need new athletes to step up to take their place,” said Jasmer. “We are looking for the girls to keep being competitive as individuals and as a team. As for the boys, we expect them to still compete strongly as individuals, but we are going to need more male runners to build up this guys team. We will just have to see what next year brings.”