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A couple of years ago, Nicole Goecke was just a basketball player ... and a rodeo cowgirl.
Cross country was not really in the plans.
Then, even after she decided to give the sport a try as a freshman at Prairie High School, she initially thought it was a big mistake.
"I was ready to quit my first week of practice," Goecke said. "There's no pain that compares to the pain of cross country."
With some encouragement from teammates, Goecke endured that first week to become one of the top three runners on a Prairie team that went on to place seventh at state that year.
Now a junior, Goecke has established herself as one of the region's top runners, helping the Falcons earn a No. 2 ranking in the state among 3A teams.
Last weekend at the Nike Pre-Nationals meet at Portland Meadows, Goecke placed 19th out of 165 runners, just behind Union's Alexis Fuller.
"That was an elite, elite field of runners in that race, and Nicole held her own," Prairie coach Phil Phimister said. "You look at the girl she was running with (Fuller). She's been running competitively for years, and Nicole just started two years ago. She's still learning what kind of runner she can be."
It's true Goecke was almost an accidental distance runner. It started when she had to run the mile during her P.E. assessment in eighth grade. She ran very well and was encouraged to give cross country a try.
Success soon followed.
Goecke placed third at the district meet as a freshman before winning the Westside Classic regional race. She placed 28th at state a week later.
Last year, she was again third at district and third at regional -- but running nine seconds faster than as a freshman. She capped her year with 16th-place finish at state.
With Camas having moved up to the 4A ranks this season, Goecke and Prairie have assumed the roles of favorites in the 3A Greater St. Helens League and beyond.
In the winter, Goecke can be found in the gym at Prairie High School. She was a key reserve on the Prairie girls basketball team that won the state championship last season.
"I find that cross country helps me get ready for basketball," she said. "Conditioning is a big part of what we do. It really helps me on defense because we like to press a lot full court."
Goecke is not the only Prairie basketball player running cross country this fall. Sophomore Lindsay Asplund is the Falcons' No. 4 runner.
"We've had a lot of basketball players run for us over the years, going back to Andrea Sitton," Phimister said. "We've got an athletic director at Prairie who encourages athletes to try different sports because it can open up new opportunities for them."
Goecke still has a passion for rodeo, even though she has put that on hold this fall as she focuses on another new-found love.
"I'm so glad I stuck with cross country," Goecke said. "I still feel like I'm learning about myself each race."