Since emigrating to the United States with his family six years ago from his native Sudan, MJ Hassaballa has been the target of a massive recruiting effort.
Already a promising performer in the 800 meters during track season, coach after coach tried to persuade the lanky kid with the easy grin to run cross country in the fall.
In Seattle - where his family originally settled after coming the U.S. - Hassaballa never took the bait. Then came a move to Lawrence last December, when, despite running a strong 800 in the spring, he still was unable to crack Free State High's vaunted 4x800-meter relay rotation.
Determined to take the final step as a senior, Hassaballa finally cracked. When cross country season beckoned in August, he knew the time had come to step off the track and go off-roading.
"I finally decided, why not go with the advice of my coaches since they're looking for the best?" Hassaballa said. "When I came the first of the season, I didn't think about how I would perform. I just had the mind-set I was training for track."
That mind-set received a pretty good beating in the early going. Training runs in the five-mile range, over rough terrain, didn't come naturally for a youngster more accustomed to the controlled climate he enjoyed during track season.
"Coming out, it was very difficult with the long workouts," Hassaballa admitted. "The first month or so, it hurts.
"But with great training, good results will come out of it."
So good that Hassaballa figures to walk away with a medal draped around his neck following Saturday's Class 6A state meet at Rim Rock Farm.
After his rough introduction to the sport, Hassaballa started picking up momentum - and lowering his times - in spectacular fashion. The result has been a series of strong finishes spanning the last four weeks, culminating in a second-place finish last weekend at a Class 6A regional meet in Topeka.
"He's very relaxed and smooth," said Free State coach Steve Heffernan, the man who finally convinced Hassaballa to give cross country a go. "At the same time, knowing where his training was at, it was impressive. I knew he had to be working really hard."
To fully appreciate what a labor of love cross country has become for Hassaballa, it's important to know the reason he never gave it a chance before this year.
Hassaballa is Muslim, which means he strictly observes Ramadan - the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, in which members of the faith fast during daylight hours. Ramadan typically lands within the same autumn months when cross country season is at its peak - it began this year on Oct. 5 and will end in early November - a difficult burden for competitors in a sport where energy bars and fluids are the norm.
This fall, Hassaballa decided he was up for the challenge, and it hasn't been easy. Afternoon practices are the toughest, when he hasn't been able to get anything in his body for eight hours or more. There have been cramps and dehydration, and at one point, Hassaballa's dad sat him down for a heart-to-heart talk to discuss whether continuing was in his son's best interest.
"I told him I could do it," Hassaballa said. "It's hard, but I don't like to quit."
With that steely determination, it's no wonder coaches always wanted him on their teams.