Cross country forms the tie that binds Prairie High School sophomores Meri Dunford and Luke Lund.

Without the sport, the two likely wouldn’t have become friends, even though both also play basketball for the Falcons. They readily admit they’re opposites in how they approach races, their race strategies, what their favorite school subject is – the list goes on for as many miles as the races they’ve won.

But through cross country, these two have forged a bond that they hope lifts the Prairie cross country program to sustained success.

prairie cross country
Meri Dunford and Luke Lund have their sights set on top finishes at Saturday’s state cross country meet to move Prairie High School’s program forward. Photo credit: Rene Ferran

The girls had a brief run during the early part of this decade, winning three straight regional titles and twice making the podium at the state championships, led by Nicole Goecke, who finished seventh as a junior and third as a senior in 2013 before heading off to Oregon State University.

Since their last regional title in 2014, though, the Falcons have had only one individual qualify for state each of the last three years – a list that now includes Dunford, who placed third at the Westside Classic on Oct. 28 to punch her ticket.

“It’s really exciting to have the chance to represent our school,” Dunford said. “That hasn’t been done in cross country very often, and I definitely want to build the program up.”

Michelle Freed was an assistant coach for Prairie’s last regional champions and has since become the head girls coach. She called the past couple of seasons a time of transition, and that Dunford can lead the program back to the top.

prairie cross country
Luke Lund ran through the fog at last Saturday’s Westside Classic to finish eighth and qualify for the state cross country championships. Photo credit: Tracey Lund

“Meri may be young, but she’s a natural leader,” Freed said. “She sets an incredible tone for the girls team. The other girls respect her because of who she is. I foresee her being exactly what this girls team needs to go to the next level. I am ecstatic about the future.”

The boys, meanwhile, have an even scarcer history. No Prairie boys individual or team has ever made the state podium. Lund’s eighth-place finish at last week’s Westside Classic made him only the third Prairie boy in the last decade to qualify for state. The last time the Falcons qualified as a team was 1997.

“It’s pretty motivating to know that I’m one of the only ones to go to state,” Lund said.

Curtis Crebar, who has been with the cross country program for eight years and the head boys coach for five years, sees a bright future with Lund leading the way.

“We have 21 freshmen this year for the boys out of 43 runners,” he said. “Six of our top 10 are freshmen. I think we offer a team that is like a family, that develops good athletes regardless of what other sports they play. We have turned the corner.”

Meri Dunford and Luke Lund both happened upon cross country despite their dreams of starring for Prairie’s basketball program. Photo credit: Rene Ferran

One thing that Dunford and Lund have in common is that neither was a cross country runner before entering high school. They both had their eyes on starring in basketball.

Dunford’s fall sport of choice was soccer, having played the sport since kindergarten, but she didn’t really have anything going on in the spring, so she tried out for the track team.

It turns out she was a natural distance runner. She won district and regional titles in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters, then finished second at state in the 1,600. That cinched her decision to give up soccer this fall for cross country.

“When I go to some of the soccer games, I miss it,” she said. “But I’ve had so much fun with cross country, I can’t imagine not having done it.”

This fall, Dunford won five meets, including the 3A Greater St. Helens district meet, and posted top-10 finishes at the Nike Portland XC and Harrier Classic.

prairie cross country
Luke Lund celebrates being selected as Prairie’s Athlete of the Month for October, when he won his first 3A GSHL district title. Photo courtesy: Prairie High School

Along the way, she’s formed a friendly rivalry with Fort Vancouver’s Emily Phelps. The Trappers junior won their league dual before Dunford edged her out at districts. At regionals, Phelps got the best of their battle, placing second.

“It’s been back and forth,” Dunford said. “It’s really awesome. We push each other and help each other a lot.”

Lund, meanwhile, didn’t really have a fall sport growing up. Football never interested him, and he was more focused on developing as a basketball player.

His buddy Bobby Wassom convinced Lund to give cross country a try, and by the end of the season, Lund had qualified for regionals, where he finished 69th.

He still wasn’t hooked, though. In the spring, Lund went out for soccer and made the C-team, which didn’t please him one bit. His friends pestered him to come out for track, so he traded his kit for a singlet and ran the 1,600 and 3,200, placing eighth at regionals in the 3,200.

Finally, he was convinced. He was a distance runner. This fall, he followed up a top-10 finish at the Nike Portland XC by winning the district title, then keeping up with the region’s top runners before posting the best finish of any GSHL runner on the Chambers Bay course.

“It’s extremely exciting to have all the attention from people at school saying, ‘Congratulations! Hope you do well at state,’” Lund said. “And I hope it motivates all these freshmen to improve and make the same leap I did.”

Neither Dunford nor Lund has huge expectations for this weekend’s state championships in Pasco. They have never run the rolling hills of the Sun Willows course, which doesn’t have any steep climbs or descents but challenges newcomers with its gradual ups and downs that never allow a runner to relax.

Meri Dunford and Luke Lund’s Favorite Things

TV show (Meri): The Office
Hands down. I love that show. It’s so funny. I can watch every episode so many times and still die of laughter.

Movie (Luke): Blades of Glory
Will Ferrell is my favorite actor of all time.

Book (Luke): Diary of a Wimpy Kid
I read it all the time when I was a kid.

School subject (Meri): English
That’s a tough one. But I like writing and reading.

Breakfast cereal (Meri): Honey Nut Cheerios
I don’t know … I just like them. They’re pretty good.

Cartoon character (Luke): SpongeBob SquarePants
I loved SpongeBob when I was growing up. Patrick’s great, too.

If the duo isn’t overwhelmed by the moment, Crebar said, he sees Lund cracking the top 30 and Dunford becoming only the second Prairie girl to make the medals podium with a top-10 finish.

“Because we have no history, there’s no pressure on us,” Dunford said. “We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

Lund has studied the rankings closely and figures he has a shot at finishing in the top 35. Dunford, meanwhile, eschews such analysis and just runs her race.

“I’ll just go out with the top group, try to run with them and hang on,” said Dunford, who comes in with the 16th-fastest time among all 3A runners at 5,000 meters. “A lot of my racing strategy relies on my kick. I have more of a kick for the mile, so if I can hang on long enough, then kick it in at the end, we’ll see what happens.”

Lund, meanwhile, doesn’t have the strongest of kicks. He’s more of a long-distance type of person, he said, and he’s already thinking ahead to his senior year, which he thinks will be the moment the Prairie program makes history.

“That’s when I’m hoping to finish first or second at regionals, hoping to get top 10 at state and lead the team to state,” he said. “The freshmen that we have, they’re really good. I’m hoping in two or three years, we’ll be the best team in the state.”

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