“I look at the rankings every week to see where people are at and how well they’ve been doing,” senior Micah Mather of St. Paul Highland Park said.
This week’s Class 2A coaches poll shows Mather and three fellow city runners are poised for a memorable finish to the season: Innocent Murwanashyaka of St. Paul Como Park (third), Mather (fourth) and Minneapolis Washburn teammates Andrew Sell (fifth) and Hamza Ali (10th).
It has been 15 years since four cross-country runners from Minneapolis or St. Paul public schools placed in the top 10 at the state meet. These four, who intertwine friendship and fast times, are ready to go such a distance together.
“I definitely think we can do it,” said Mather, who finished 12th at the state meet last November. “I feel like we’re a team, like city against suburbs, sort of. It gives us some sort of camaraderie.”
All four showed well at the recent Roy Griak Invitational, one of the season’s most prestigious meets. Mather took fifth in the gold competition, followed by Sell in sixth. Ali placed 15th. Murwanashyaka won the maroon race with a time of 16 minutes, 13 seconds that would have placed him sixth in the tougher gold field. Murwanashyaka announced himself earlier this season, edging Mather by four-hundredths of a second to win the Rum River Invitational.
Last fall Mather, Sell and Ali all placed within the top 25 at the state meet and earned all-state honors. Murwanashyaka, a junior in only his second year of cross-country, is the new kid. His first name, Innocent, aptly described his distant running roots.
“When I started, I didn’t know much about running so I just took off right away,” he said. “But with running, you need the mental and physical together.”
You would be overzealous, too, if you spent six months in a hospital in Rwanda with fractured fibula and tibia bones. Murwanashyaka was 14 when he injured his left leg in a bicycle accident. Two years later he arrived in St. Paul. Hoping to play soccer, he missed the deadline to sign up last fall and joined the cross-country team as a consolation.
“He had to learn racing tactics but he was a courageous runner,” Cougars coach Tim Kersey said.
Experience taught Murwanashyaka to relax and let the 5,000-meter race develop. He held strong in about third place, then surged late to victories at both the Rum River and the Roy Griak invitationals. The latter solidified him as a runner to watch.
“My goal was to be one of the top runners in the state so I was happy to be ranked in the top 10,” Murwanashyaka said.
Mather and Ali, who dealt with summer injuries, also are happy to be among the elite. Mather’s foot and several muscles in Ali’s legs limited their summer mileage and strained their resolve. But both seniors learned they could take a punch and fight back. Mather crushed a team time trial record to begin the season. Ali has not reached his previous personal best but insisted it’s a matter of time.
“I’m going to make myself be there,” Ali said.
Having a strong teammate in Sell helps. The senior duo is “competitive in everything,” friendly rivals who “always talk smack,” Ali said. “I would not be as fast without him.”
“He’s pushed me a lot. Last year he was ahead of me in every race, and I was like, ‘I can’t let this happen. I’ve got to try and catch up to him.’ ”
A similar mentality drives all four runners, Sell said. They will compete against each other Thursday at the Blaine Invitational Blue race, held at Majestic Oaks Golf Course in Ham Lake.
“We all want each other to succeed,” Sell said. “Of course, we all try to beat each other. But I would love to have all of us finish well at state.”
In other sports, the presence of larger budgets and talent pools, along with fieldhouses and turf fields, put the balance of power in the suburbs. For Ali and Sell, nearby Lake Harriet offers an envied training locale.
“Other runners come here to train,” Ali said. “This is where so many races happen. You’re surrounded by the running culture here.”
Watching one of his athletes join a strong group of inner-city runners is extra satisfying for Kersey. In 1991, he helped St. Paul Central take third at the Class 2A state meet. Pride in the city runs deep.
“What they are doing is pretty special,’’ Kersey said, “but it will be really even more special to see them have nice performances at the state meet and represent both the St. Paul and Minneapolis conferences.”