Southern Oregon University distance runner Jessa Perkinson won the national championship last year at 10,000 meters but is focusing on the 5,000 and 1,500 this spring. [DENISE BARATTA/MAIL TRIBUNE]

Switching gears

ASHLAND — She played softball all four years of high school in Roseburg and was not just an ordinary player.

A center fielder and leadoff hitter, she helped lead her team to the playoffs every year, including two state championship finals. She was all-conference every year and named first-team all-state her senior year.

Then Jessa Perkinson switched sports.

During her senior year at Roseburg, Perkinson decided to give cross country a try. That decision was a turning point that led three years later to breaking three Southern Oregon University distance records and a prominent place in Raiders track and field history.

Perkinson is now a junior at SOU, with a competitive — but humble — spirit that as much as anything motivates her. In fact, it is like pulling teeth to get her to admit how good she is at distance running.

Her abilities will be on display this weekend when SOU hosts the Cascade Conference championships at Raider Stadium. The meet starts at 2 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. Saturday.

Perkinson’s success does not stop with her exploits on the track. A psychology major, she is on the SOU dean’s list and the Cascade Collegiate Conference’s all-academic list, but admits she has had “a few Bs.”

The diminutive Perkinson — she stands at 5 feet tall — has broken school records in the 10,000, 5,000 and 1,500 meters, with respective best times of 36 minutes, 10.83 seconds; 16.46.09 and 4:30.11.

Her 5,000 and 1,500 times were run this spring, and she ranks first and fifth, respectively, in the nation at those distances. She hasn’t run the 10,000 this season.

Perkinson broke the 10K mark in her sophomore year at the national championships, bettering the record she set less than two months before at the San Francisco Distance Carnival.

She knew the first time she ran the distance, it suited her.

“I had a good time and gradually became more comfortable,” she says. “After I finished it, I was just so thrilled, I thought, ‘I like that race.’“

In addition to winning the 10K at nationals in 2016, she was third in the 5K.

SOU coach Grier Gatlin says he found out about Perkinson almost by accident.

“We were looking at two other athletes and Nate (Roseburg coach Nathan Eckman) said I might want to keep an eye out for this one,” Gatlin says.

Perkinson says Eckman “was very good at giving athletes an opportunity.”

Gatlin was pretty much convinced when Perkinson not only won the State of Jefferson Invite 5K in Ashland during her high school senior year, but broke the course record as well.

After that race, she got a call from Gatlin. Following the high school state meet, where she placed fifth, she was formally invited to join the SOU team and took a campus tour. Although she also toured Northwest Christian University in Eugene and Oregon State University, she called Gatlin the day after her tour.

“I felt compelled to come here. I liked the school, my teammates and the coach,” Perkinson says.

Her freshman year at SOU was “a slow process” as she got used to her new surroundings, new sport and the upgrade in competition.

“I felt like I had a slump in my first real track season (as a freshman),” she says. “I was a little intimidated about living up to my potential. Coach told me you will be good at this, and that gave me a lot of confidence.”

Perkinson was so new at track when she came to Ashland, says Gatlin, she didn’t understand the nuances of the sport, such as starting out too fast out and then flagging late in the race. He says consistency is integral to distance running success, and he emphasizes steady and equal split times during races.

Call it the turtle and hare approach: Slow and steady wins the race. But in real competition, you must stay within reach of the pack.

“The strategy varies, depending on the race,” Perkinson says. “Personally, I run as fast and strong as I can to get my best time, but I also try to stay on a reasonable pace that I can sustain. I could be toward the back at the beginning of a race, but I just have to stay with it. In long races, it is OK to be behind. I just try not to think about that and just run my race.”

She hasn’t disappointed.

This year, Perkinson decided to concentrate on the 5K and the 1,500, devoting her efforts to the shorter and faster races. With school records in both, she has the rest of this season and her senior year to improve her times.

“She just keeps getting better,” Gatlin says. “Her ceiling is as high as she wants it to be.”

Training includes several days of intense running at varied distances, followed by days of easy runs to allow recovery, Perkinson says. The athletes also lift weights.

One of Perkinson’s most memorable moments on the track was in the San Francisco Distance Carnival this season. She was feeling a bit ill and she was nervous.

“I prayed during my warmup and embraced the peace I felt in knowing that this wasn’t the most important thing in the world and that we’re all just going out there to race and do our best,” she recalls. “With that in mind, every lap, no matter how I felt, I encouraged whoever was close to me, saying things like ‘great job, let’s get this pack,’ or ‘you’re strong and we’re almost done.’ “

She realized the race was going well based on her splits.

But, she says, “I was more focused on helping the girls around me to have a positive experience. I didn’t win; the competition was stacked. But the best moment was after the race. A girl hugged me and thanked me for helping her run her best time. I knew then that helping each other is what it’s all about, to be our very best.”

Perkinson says her outlook is partly a carryover from playing in more team-based softball in high school, “where we always practiced sportsmanship.”

She says she normally doesn’t talk with competitors during races because it is hard enough to just conserve energy to take breaths and strides. But to her, competition is not just about her.

Perkinson looks forward to her senior year in school and track. After graduation, she plans to earn a master’s degree. Although she thinks she will move on from track, she would like to try marathons and trail running.

“I have enjoyed the competition and bonding with my teammates to work for a common goal,” she says.

But she doesn’t brag about it.

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