for the Mail Tribune
ASHLAND — It was a hunch from her high school coach that got Jessa Perkinson into competitive running five years ago.
“I had hopes that I would be good at it, but I didn’t really know what that would look like,” Perkinson recalled. “I was new to the sport, too, so I didn’t really know what times were good or what you even had to do to be an All-American.”
Fast forward to 2018 and two things are true:
For one, her coach at Roseburg High was right on the money.
Secondly, Perkinson definitely knows what it takes to be an All-American now.
After running all of one season of track in high school, Perkinson has gone on to become arguably the most-accomplished female athlete in Southern Oregon University history. Entering the final week of her collegiate career, Perkinson has been named an All-American 12 times and has a list of accomplishments that runs almost as long as the two races she’s competing in at the NAIA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, to be held Thursday through Saturday in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
“These last four years have been a blast and they’ve been so much fun,” Perkinson said as an ear-to-ear grin appeared in quick fashion. “They’ve been surprising. I didn’t really expect my career to be all that it has been, but I’ve been super blessed by it all and it’s been wonderful.”
Perkinson may have earned the distinction as SOU’s “resident headline-hog” from sports information director Josh McDermott, but all the accolades and accomplishments haven’t deterred the constant goal of improvement.
There has been no resting on her laurels.
Instead, she’s only continued to raise the bar.
She may not always get there, but a lot of the time she has — only to raise it again.
“There’s always a new goal to be set. You can always improve and always get better,” Perkinson said. “For me, no matter what I’m placing or what kind of accolades are coming from anything, I know that I can always push hard and be better for myself in whatever way that means personally. When I keep striving to keep improving, there’s no limit to bettering yourself.”
The goal entering her final national meet — one where she will be the top seed in the 10,000 meters and the No. 2 seed in the 5K — is pretty much the same as it always has been.
“I guess being ranked first in the 10K and the 5K, the goal is to come out in first,” Perkinson said. “I just want to have a positive experience, have a fun time and know that I did my best out on the track.”
Over the past three seasons, there are few distance runners in the NAIA that are as decorated as Perkinson.
She enters her final trip to nationals as the first-ever runner in the Cascade Conference to win three straight conference titles in the 5K.
She is also the reigning national champion in the 5K.
Not only is Perkinson one of the favorites to win the 5K, she’ll also attempt to win her second 10K national title in the past three years.
Perkinson is the reigning CCC Female Athlete of the Year, an honor that hadn’t been awarded to an SOU student-athlete since 1999.
Wherever you look when it comes to SOU distance running — as well as cross country — the last few years, Perkinson has likely played a big role in it.
“I do feel like I have pretty high expectations for myself, so sometimes I even feel disappointed when I’m not reaching those goals. But I do take that time to step back and just have thankfulness and gratefulness, it does truly surprise me sometimes to put it into perspective with what I have done,” Perkinson said. “With how I always have a personal goal with what I think I can run and push myself harder for a better time, sometimes I’ll be going for a really big improvement on time. I might not always reach that, but I’ll do something else like qualify for a race or place really high, so taking that time and look back and be like ‘Wow, I really have come a long way.’
“I still want to improve, but I’ve been so fortunate so far.”
She may be a dominant force now and running times that the NAIA hasn’t seen in nearly a decade like what she achieved back in mid-April — recording the fastest time amongst NAIA runners in the 5K since 2009 (16 minutes, 13.79 seconds) — but it hasn’t necessarily always been that way.
Perkinson says that it was her sophomore year at SOU when things truly clicked, with the light bulb seemingly going off in her head. Suddenly, she knew she was pretty good at this.
“My freshman year wasn’t super-eventful and I was still getting the hang of things. Sophomore year, things started to click and I started to grow a lot more confidence,” Perkinson said. “God had given me a talent and I was getting really excited about getting to use it and figuring out what the sport was all about. There was a little bit of that moment in my sophomore year recognizing the gift that I had and getting excited about it.”
There’s no denying that she’s figured it out now.
“I’ve made a lot of great memories and learned a lot of great lessons,” Perkinson said. “I’ve been able to see some of the fruit that I’ve invested into this team. We have some young girls on the team, so it’s really exciting to see some potential of what they’re going to turn into. I feel like I have been making the most of (this senior year) and I’m just excited for this next week to come and just continue enjoying that.”
As much as there is likely some sort of running in her future — she’s thinking that marathons are within sight in the next year or so — Perkinson just wants to make her last two races in SOU gear to be the best they can be.
She will be one of eight SOU female athletes heading to Alabama, something that Perkinson takes a lot of pride in.
And judging by the not-so-distant past, there’s a very good chance that good things will happen once again on the national stage.
“I think with everything this sport has given back to me and how blessed I’ve been by it, I feel like it’s only right — and I was telling my coach about this the other day — to honor the sport by continuing to give more of yourself to it and continuing to get every last drop out of it that you can,” Perkinson said.
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.