Last year, Amanda Nygard was faced with a tough choice.

The Hermiston High School athlete, both a soccer player and a cross country runner, was forced to conform to one of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s biggest rules: All varsity athletes are allowed to compete in just one sport at a time.

And so, the question stood: cross country in the fall, or soccer in the fall?

“I love soccer,” said Nygard, now a junior. “I wanted to play it for one more year before focusing on cross country.”

Nygard joined the Bulldogs’ soccer squad to cap off her sophomore year, much to the dismay of Hermiston XC coach Troy Blackburn.

“I told her, ‘You’re making a mistake,’” Blackburn joked, “but she figured it out after a year.”

Since Nygard made her return to the cross country team this fall, she’s made her presence known throughout the Mid-Columbia Conference.

She currently holds the No. 2 spot in the girls’ standings in league action with her personal record of 19:23.30, which she earned at the Brooks Fort Steilacoom Invitational in Lakewood, Washington, at the end of September. She’s placed in the top 10 in all six of her varsity meets so far this season, including a first-place finish at last Thursday’s Bulldog Fest with a time of 20:08.60.

“We talked a lot about it,” Blackburn said. “It’s been a good decision for her. In cross country, individuals shine, and she’s a great leader. There’s no one that works harder than Amanda. That’s the best thing about having her back. When you have an athlete that works hard like that, it trickles down to everyone else.”

Nygard shares team captain duties with fellow junior Ellie Ernst.

Nygard’s teammate, sophomore Cydney Sanchez, is the No. 3 runner in the MCC standings. She also earned her PR at the Brooks Fort Steilacoom Invitational (19:37.30).

Wednesday, Nygard and her team will compete against some of the area’s best at the MCC Meet #2 in Kennewick.

Among the lineup of racers are the MCC’s best — Ella Nelson of Walla Walla, Geraldine Correa of Kennewick, Natalie Ruzauskas of Richland and Deverie Gutierrez of Kamiakin, who just edged Nygard at the Fort Steilacoom race.

“There’s a lot of fast runners (in the MCC),” Nygard said. “But that’s good for me — I can push myself. There’s more competition. I didn’t start out being the top runner in the MCC. I worked my way up.”

Starting strong

Nygard first got a taste of cross country glory in eighth grade, when she won the state title while on the Sandstone Middle School team.

“I was like, ‘Wow, that was kinda cool,’” she recalled. “Troy started talking to me about joining his team right away.”

As a freshman, Nygard finished fifth at the Columbia River Conference district meet, qualifying for the Oregon Class 5A state championships. She placed 29th at state in a time of 20:13.

With her focus now solely on running, Nygard and her team maintain a strict weekly practice routine: On Mondays, they run five 1,000-meter dashes at Echo Hills Golf Course. On Tuesdays, they do a base run. On Wednesdays, they cycle through 10 200-meter runs at Sandstone. Thursdays are for lighter base runs, and Fridays include a 5-mile run and four 200-meter returns.

“I like how physical it is,” Nygard said of cross country. “I love the competitive nature of running.”

A look ahead

Although Wednesday’s second MCC meet of the season hosts an array of top tier athletes, Nygard has built the confidence up to withstand such rigid competition.

“I know a lot of the bigger girls are going,” she said. “I’m going to keep up with them and kick ‘em in the end.”

After all the success she’s seen so far on the course this season, which uniform will Nygard don for her senior year?

“Probably cross country,” she said.

“We’re like a family. They help me become a better runner, and I help them, too.”

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