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Senior salute: Neal’s drive to be a three-sport athlete is perfectly Prairie

High schools: Tim Martinez

By Tim Martinez, Columbian Assistant Sports Editor
Published: May 4, 2020, 2:52pm

Anna Neal planned to complete her high school athletic career in a perfectly Prairie fashion – as a three-sport athlete.

But the coronavirus outbreak ended those dreams early.

“I was definitely heartbroken that my senior year was cut short,” Neal said. “I had to miss out on my track season, which was really sad for me. I also lost all the fun senior activities. And our graduation it was announced, will be virtual, which kind of stinks.”

In addition to track, Neal played on Prairie’s girls basketball team in the winter.

But her true love is played in the fall – soccer.

“It my first sport,” Neal said. “I started when I was five years old, and I’ve never stopped. I’ve just loved it my whole life. I’ve picked up other sports as I went along, but soccer has always been the constant sport in my life.”

Senior Salute

Each week through June, Tim Martinez will spotlight a different high school senior athlete.

If you know of a senior who deserves some attention, send it to tim.martinez@columbian.com or send a direct message on Twitter to @360TMart.

She had been the top scorer on her club team, Pacific FC, since joining in 2013. But when she arrived as a freshman at Prairie, she was dealt a position change.

“Our coach told me ‘you’re a center back,’ ” Neal said. “And I had been a forward for almost my whole life.

“It was hard to not go up during games, like on corner kicks and try to score, because I had been scoring my whole life. Now, I had to stop people from scoring, so it was a bit of an adjustment. But I think I handled it pretty well.”

Neal earned second-team all-league status as a junior as Prairie advanced to the 3A state semifinals. In her senior season, she was selected the 3A Greater St. Helens League defensive player of the year.

“I was genuinely surprised because I wasn’t a natural defender,” she said. “But I gave it my all to be a great defender and stop as many goals as I could for my team.”

After an injury kept her from running track her freshman year, Neal ran her sophomore and junior years, reaching the bi-district meet both seasons.

“My junior year, I sadly got sick during the (bi-district) meet, and I could not run the 4-by-4 relay, which was bound to go to state,” Neal said. “But we didn’t make it. So that was my goal this year, to get to state.”

She did make state in basketball. Neal played basketball from third to through eighth grade before playing on the Prairie JV team her sophomore year.

The demands of soccer and school – she took Advanced Placement classes all four years at Prairie – kept her from being a three-sport athlete as a freshman and junior.

“But then my senior year, it was my last time to play basketball ever,” she said. “So I just went out there for tryouts, even though I hadn’t touched a basketball since my sophomore year. And I made varsity and had a great time.”

Neal said track made her a better athlete from learning to push herself. As a bench player, basketball helped her become a better teammate.

And those lessons helped her encourage others to try different sports, which is very much the culture at Prairie. The school had 46 three-sport athletes this year.

“It is encouraged to go out and try new sports” at Prairie, Neal said. “I know of so many people who have never played a sport, and they hear stories of how fun it is. So they just go out and try it. I think that’s great.”

Neal said the encouragement she received from teammates and coaches as a first-time track athlete her sophomore year led her to encourage others to give track a try.

“I think being involved in sports is really important, even if you’re not the best,” she said. “You don’t have to be the best athlete. You get to meet new people and learn new things. It’s just a great opportunity.”

And it can lead to other opportunities.

Neal said she had planned to go to college next year and just focus on her studies.

Then she was contacted by new Clark College soccer coach Peter Pickett to join a recruiting class that includes other local players like Avery Smith of Camas, Amanda Smalley of Battle Ground, Maddie Harris of Evergreen, Paige German of Hudson’s Bay, Shalece Easley of Columbia River, Caylee Coleman of Mark Morris and Gwen Elkinton of Woodland.

Pickett then put Neal in touch with Clark’s track and field coach Robert Williams, leading Neal to sign letters of intent to compete in soccer and track for the Penguins.

“It really wasn’t my plan to play or run in college,” Neal said. “But then the opportunity got handed to me, and I was eager to take it.”