A long way to run

The success is unmatched in Willmar High School history -- a runner-up finish and consecutive state titles in successive falls. Five years ago Cardinal boys cross country didn't register on the most sensitive of the running radars scouting the ne...

The success is unmatched in Willmar High School history -- a runner-up finish and consecutive state titles in successive falls. Five years ago Cardinal boys cross country didn't register on the most sensitive of the running radars scouting the next breakthrough program.

Then, Willmar finished runner-up to Marshall in 2004, by far the best finish ever at state cross country by a Willmar team. Next year, in 2005, Willmar placed seven points up on runner-up Stillwater, a perennial power.

This season, the No. 1-ranked team in the state for two consecutive years, won by 73 points over second-place Rosemount.

On the way to the pinnacle, the boys collected three consecutive Central Lakes Conference titles and back-to-back Section 2AA championships. This year's team is undefeated.

With five African-born runners at the front, Willmar won the 2006 CLC title with a perfect score. At the section meet, the Cardinals were one place removed from another perfect score.


At state, the five amigos all finished in the top 20 percent in a field of 155 runners: Kaafi Adeys took fifth, Abdi Awale seventh, Mahad Hassan 14th, Mohamed Bedel 16th and Mustafa Yusuf 23rd.

Four of those runners are seniors. Says Hassan, the only underclassman, "I want to be the individual state champion next year."

The four seniors all indicate a wish to continue their running careers at college next year.

Awale has big plans for spring: "I'm not satisfied with my (track) times. I want to leave here with the (school) record in the 400, 800, mile and two mile."

He already has the 800-meter mark.

It appears these young men are born to run. Four of them were born in Somalia, a poor, coastal country on the Horn of Africa. Hassan said he was born in Kenya of Somalian parents. Each immigrated as a boy to the United States in the mid- to late 1990s, leaving a country torn by political instability and tribal wars.

Awale and Yusuf came to Marshall at same time, in early grade school.

Abdi said his mother arrived first in the U.S., settling in Marshall, while he stayed behind living with relatives, first in Ethiopia and later Kenya. Blood tests to prove his relationship were needed, Abdi said, to get him into the U.S.


"My mother did everything possible to get me here," said Awale.

His mother remarried in the United States; he has five siblings with another on the way, he said.

"Both my parents are very ambitious," said Awale. "My stepfather says we're placed here for a reason, and we must take advantage of our abilities. My father (Abdulcadir Gaal) is very educated. He sets goals and raised me to set goals."

Awale ran on the Marshall team that finished second at the 2002 state meet. Only an eighth grader, he ran fourth-best on the team that day. He transferred to Willmar a few months later after his stepfather, an office worker, had the opportunity to transfer to the Jennie-O turkey plant in Willmar.

While the native Somalians with their lean builds seem to be naturals, there is no success without exceptional dedication to enhancing one's raw talents. This year, more than ever, the runners enthusiastically embraced the training outlined by co-head coaches Disa Daucsavage and Jerry Popp.

Kyle Eckhoff, now a sophomore at Minnesota State Moorhead, was one of the first to embrace a stepped up work-out program. He led the Cardinals to a second-place finish behind Marshall at the 2004 state meet in Northfield.

All four seniors are planning to attend college next fall. The schools they most often mention is Minnesota State at either the Moorhead or Mankato campus.

Since winning the state title on Nov. 4, the team has been preparing for the Nike National meet Dec. 2 in Portland, Oregon, under the banner of the Winged Foot Running Club.


The new work ethic spread through the program. It buoyed a young girls team that took a surprising second in the conference meet, though they were off form at the section meet and finished a disappointing 11th.

All through the lineup, the boys had unheard of finishes in both the Central Lakes conference and section meets. At Sauk Rapids, Willmar took the five top places and Andrew Nicklawsky, Scott Boros and Zach Coquet were all in the top 10. At the 16-team section team, Willmar runners all finished in the top 16 individually.

While interviewing the championship runners, they would sometimes break into their native tongue with laughter. Perhaps they were laughing at the reporter's silly query, or maybe they were sharing a distant memory of their native land or the long journey that brought them to the hallways of Willmar High School. They are children of two worlds; Awale frames the contradictions:

"I'm 100-percent Somalian in my heart, but since I am here I'm an American. I'll never forget my national culture (but) this is the Land of Opportunity. I do appreciate it and am grateful for what I have."

And that includes all those state medals.

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