ST. MICHAEL – Fans at the state Class A track and field meet were treated to a ending for the ages in the boys 1,600-meter championship.
Perham’s Jakob McCleary won the state championship with a time of 4:21.13. It was 0.01 better than Nova Classical Academy’s Finn McCormick.
“It’s so awesome we got to do this against each other,” McCormick said. “We talked before the race, after the race. We’re just having fun out there. I told him before the race that we were going to put on a show. Let’s have a good race and make it fast. We did it.”
To the casual bystander, it was a race with an epic ending between two of the state’s best runners. However, history will tell you it was the final showdown between two worthy rivals on the grandest stage of Minnesota high school running.
McCleary and McCormick have been side-by-side down the home stretch in two separate state tournaments during this athletic year.
In the fall, McCleary beat McCormick by 35 seconds for the Class A cross country title. Despite leading the whole race,
McCormick collapsed with the finish line in sight
–opening the door for McCleary to run away with a lengthy win.
On Friday, McCormick made his move on the fourth and final lap of the 1,600-meter race at St. Michael-Albertville High School. It was clear the two University of Minnesota running commits were going to have one more battle in the high school ranks before becoming teammates.
“I was so close,” McCormick said with a big smile. “The whole race, I just kept thinking, ‘Stay in this.’ Jakob took the third lap, and I was just going to sit behind him. I made the conscious decision to let him lead. I know he has a good kick, but I wanted to try to out-kick him. With 250 to go, my coach told me to go. I took off. I thought I had him. With 100 to go, I was still in the lead. I put another surge in, but he still got me in the last 20 meters.”
Both runners lunged at the finish line, leaving McCormick on the ground once again. Because it was less frightening than his collapse at St. Olaf College in November, it made for an unforgettable conclusion to a race that left both runners’ eyes glued to the STMA video board, awaiting a winner.
“I just didn’t want my legs to give out on me,” McCleary said on making a move to pass McCormick in the final seconds. “I thought to myself, “OK, we’re really doing this.’ I’m throwing everything I have, and he’s throwing everything he has. We gave our best effort. That’s all you can really ask for when you have a competition.”
Both McCormick and McCleary acknowledge a rivalry between the two of them. However, it’s rooted in immense respect. Their clash at the cross country championships grew their relationship off the track.
“I love racing Finn. He’s a great competitor and a better guy,” McCleary said. “I didn’t talk to him much until I told him I was going to The U. It’s just a rivalry that’s set up in the perfect way. We had some battles, and now it’s going to be there in practice in a different way. We are going to push each other with that competitive spirit. I’ll make sure I let him know about when I edged him out at state, as a joke, of course.”
There were plenty of jokes to go around in the front of the pack on Friday. Both McCleary and McCormick tailed Nova’s Henry Karelitz in the middle of the race. When McCleary made a move to take the lead, he let both of his opponents know it was go-time.
“Henry was leading the second lap. He led a great lap,” McCormick said. “On the home stretch going into the third lap, I was right behind Jakob. He jumped ahead of Henry, leaned over and said, ‘let’s race.’ I wanted to be in it with them, so I jumped up with Jakob and took second place. We rode it out for the last two laps.”
“When Henry waved me through, I wanted to let them know it was time to race,” McCleary said. “I wanted to fire it up and get us all going. I like when it gets a little chirpy in there. I think the sport needs that a little more. It was all in good fun.”
McCormick was the first guy to hug McCleary after the results were revealed. It marked the end of a chapter in their careers as opponents. Now they will wear the same maroon and gold jersey in the fall.
“It’s going to be so fun,” McCormick said. “I can already imagine all of the workouts next to each other-battling it out. It doesn’t have to be such a competitive rivalry anymore. It can be a friendly one now. We’ll have a great time.”
The end of a storied high school career
Athletes like McCleary don’t come around often, even at Perham. The senior left his final mark on the program with two more state championships to a historic running resume.
McCleary won the 800-meter race in 2021 with a time of 1:56.92. On Friday, he beat his junior-year title time by almost two seconds at 1:55.03 for his second consecutive 800-meter state championship.
After the Perham cross country team hosted its home meet at Arvig Park in October, McCleary said he had four goals for his senior year. He wanted to win the Class A state cross country title, repeat in the 800-meter in track, win the 1,600-meter and commit to run for a major collegiate program. Eight months later, he checked off the last two boxes.
“Having goals and achieving them is the best feeling,” McCleary said. “You’re not going to reach every single goal you make. I have a goal for my next meet at Nike Nationals next weekend. I have a goal, but if I don’t reach it, that’s OK. But when you do reach that goal, it’s a great feeling.”
McCleary brought four state championships back to Perham High School in two seasons. It’s an elite mark that he hopes another Yellowjacket will top sooner rather than later.
“I finished off my high school career with two state titles. That’s not just good for me, but my community,” McCleary said. “It’s good for these younger kids behind me. I want them to look at what I did and do better. I want them to tell themselves that they can beat Jakob McCleary if they work for it.”
“Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be one of those guys that kids looked up to as a legend. I wanted to do the things I did, but it doesn’t come without a supportive community and a school all being there for me.”
McCleary is the only senior that ran for the Perham boys cross country and track teams at state meets in the 2021-22 season. Junior Micah Thompson knows he has some big shoes to fill next year, but he cherished his time on the track with a close friend.
“Jakob is all you could ever ask for as a leader,” Thompson said. “As a teammate and a mentor, he’s so smart. He’s obviously a great runner, but he’s a better friend. Running with him these past two years in cross and track, he’s just been an inspiration to all of us. He genuinely wants us to beat him.”
McCleary has earned some time to cool down.
“I’m going to go surfing with some friends,” McCleary said of his plans for after he gets back from nationals. “I’m ready to enjoy the water, and I’m definitely ready to eat some ice cream. I think about it now and how I’ll say it’ll be nice to chill out, but I know I’ll be sitting there waiting for the next time I can go on a run.”
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