COLUMBIA — Eau Claire senior Omar Sharif will be chasing history at the state cross country meet on Saturday at Sandhills Research Park.
Sharif emerged as something of a surprise state champion in Class 2A last year, becoming the first Eau Claire runner to claim an individual state title and the first cross country runner in 31 years from a Richland One district school to lead the pack in the biggest race of the season.
The last high school challenge for the Shamrocks star is to become the first cross country runner from a Richland One school, male or female, to secure back-to-back championships.
“To be honest, my goal last year was to finish in the top three and winning it was a surprise to me,” said Sharif. “I trained a lot harder to get ready for this season, but I don’t feel any pressure because I’m the defending champion. I just go out and run my race. The goal (this week) is to run a fast time and win.”
Sharif, who was born in Kenya and moved to the United States when he was 11 years old, got the distance running itch while watching his cousins practice and race at Richland Northeast.
“I would go and watch then run almost every day after school and I thought I’d like to give it a try,” he said.
Sharif began his career as an eighth-grader at RNE before his family moved into the Eau Claire area.
“Basically, we were lucky to have a runner like Omar transfer in to our school,” Shamrocks coach Jamil Canada said.
“Since he’s been here and achieved such great success, interest in cross country in the school is growing. Even after Omar graduates, we should have a solid program in place for at least as couple of more years.”
Sharif placed 57th at state as a freshman at Eau Clare and made a jump to 10th in 2010 before reaching the top last year.
The Shamrocks qualified as a team and hope to crack the top 10 for the first time since 1992.
Sharif credits Canada and Phil Peterson, his first coach at Richland Northeast, for helping him to become an elite runner. Peterson and Sharif joined forces again for offseason work in the summer of 2011, laying the foundation for the first championship. Canada set up a more demanding schedule this season for his star.
“We beefed up the schedule to challenge Omar against the top competition, and he’s done quite well with that,” Canada said. “He ran in the Coaches Classic, the Lexington Invitational and the Lake Murray Invitational, so I think he’s ready for this week.”
Sharif had his best time of the season — 15 minutes, 49 seconds — while finishing fourth at Lake Murray, and turned in a second sub-16:00 effort while finishing first at last weekend’s qualifier.