FOUR YEARS ago the Willmar (Minn.) High cross-country team couldn't even win a local meet. Now Willmar has won two straight state titles, and it qualified for last Saturday's Nike Team Nationals in Portland. What changed for the little school on the western Minnesota prairie? An influx of athletes from Somalia.
About 1,000 Somalis, made refugees by civil war, have come to Willmar over the last decade, drawn to the town of 20,000, 100 miles west of St. Paul, by a Jennie-O turkey-processing plant that has hired many immigrant workers. Abdi Awale, now a senior, was the first Somali to come out for the team four years ago. The next year he recruited his friend Kaafi Adeys, and three more Somalis joined the team as the year progressed. "They just trickled in," recalls Jerry Popp, the team's co-coach, who says the Somalians brought an uncommon determination to training. "Coaching these kids is like coaching any other kids," Popp says. "Get them to believe you care about them, they'll do just about anything for you."
This year Somalian runners had five of the team's seven varsity spots, and last month the fivesome won the Minnesota team title by setting a state record with an average time of 15:49.4. In Portland on Saturday they finished in 16th place after a 40-man pileup slowed five of their seven runners in the beginning of the race.
Any triumph seems impressive given the tragic history of these athletes, at least three of whom lost family members in the civil war, which has displaced more than 300,000 since 1991. When Adeys was about four and living in Somalia, his father was killed. "I just know it happened in the war," says the senior who came to Willmar with his mother when he was nine years old. After long journeys that began in refugee camps, the runners say they feel at home in Willmar, in no small part because of the team's success. "People congratulate us everywhere we go," says Adeys. "It's a good feeling."
NOTES FROM THE NATIONALS
IN SOGGY conditions that led to a muddy pileup of more than 40 runners at the 1K mark of Oregon's Portland Meadows 5K course, the Coatesville (Pa.) High boys won the Nike Team Nationals last Saturday. "We knew we could run in the mud because of our strength training," said Coatesville coach Keith Andrew, whose team edged second-place Royal High (Simi Valley, Calif.) and 19 other schools.... Shenendehowa High's (Clifton Park, N.Y.) Steve Murdock, a Syracuse recruit and New York state champion, easily won the individual title in 16:26.9 over Albuquerque Academy's Ben Johnson, 16:37.8.... Fayetteville-Manlius High (Manlius, N.Y.) coach Bill Aris cited Pink Floyd to sum up his team's dominating 50-point win over Hilton (N.Y.) in the girls' race. "The first two kilometers was Comfortably Numb," said Aris, who got his first national title. "The last three was Run Like Hell."... Ashley Higginson (left) of Colts Neck (N.J.) High sprinted past defending champ Betsy Bies of Yankton (S.Dak.) High in the last mile to take the individual title.
RICH FRISHMAN (WILLMAR RUNNERS)
DOMINANT The Willmar kids swept the top five spots in three meets this season.
KIRBY LEE/WIREIMAGE.COM (HIGGINSON)