The day after the Kamiakin High School cross-country team held its annual awards banquet, coach Matt Rexus learned one of his best runners, Ahmed Ibrahim, was gone for good.
Ahmed and his cousin Mohamed Noor, both 17, were headed to Portland to live with their grandmother.
Their departure is a blow, though the boys were at Kamiakin only a year-and-a-half and had one season with the cross-country team. Both were juniors and Ibrahim, along with individual accomplishments, was a key part of a varsity crew that placed seventh nationally at a meet earlier this month.
But Ahmed's athletic prowess won't be the only reason he will be missed -- or, more importantly, remembered -- at Kamiakin.
Teachers, administrators and teammates said Ahmed was an example of determination, friendliness and tranquility in spite of the struggles he experienced as a Kenyan refugee still learning English four years after moving to the United States.
"It's sad when a kid who comes and makes a positive connection is uprooted and moved," said Casey Gant, Kamiakin's athletic director. "You want more kids like him."
Kyle Paulson, a former Kamiakin athlete who graduated in 2012, said he first noticed Ahmed while out for a run on an early spring day.
Ahmed and Mohamed were playing soccer on the turf inside the track at Kamiakin High. Paulson and cross-country teammate Anthony Armstrong thought the boys looked like good runners. After talking a little while, Paulson came away convinced both should be on the school's track and cross-country teams.
"(Ahmed said) he ran like a 2:07 (in the 800 meters)," Paulson said. "I wish I could do that."
It wasn't until two weeks into track season that Ahmed and Mohamed showed up for practice. Rexus, who was an assistant track coach, said he had his doubts about their ability to catch up with the rest of the team.
But they excelled, by all accounts. Senior Christian Rodriguez, 18, said Ahmed exploded after running in just three races.
"He wasn't just improving, he was improving in drastic steps," Rodriguez said.
Ahmed ended the season a top runner for the track team, and he asked to join the cross-country squad. He was district champion despite not training as much as other runners on the team during the summer.
Ahmed told the Herald he wasn't much of an athlete before his uncle and grandmother moved him and Mohamed to Kennewick in early 2011.
"I didn't do any sports or anything. I was just trying to learn English," he said.
School counselor Calvin Stewart said Ahmed's determination was the first thing he noticed when the boys showed up at Kamiakin in 2012. Stewart and another counselor helped them choose classes and navigate the high school experience. During the boys' first week, they would show up a half-hour before their first class just to speak with Stewart.
Ahmed didn't talk much about his life before he came to the U.S., but bits and pieces have been shared. His grandmother cared for him since he was a young child, and it's not known what has become of his parents. Much of his time was spent in a refugee camp in East Africa.
"The camp was not safe," he said. "Even daytime was not good."
Despite that experience, the frequent moves and his struggles with English, he inspired those who know him with his work ethic.
Sabiha Khan, who teaches U.S. history at Kamiakin, said Ahmed was struggling in her class when he started getting help outside of class. She said she offered to work with him during lunch, but he said that's when he got help with math. He couldn't always come after school, either, as that's when he got help in his science class. Regardless, Khan said Ahmed never appeared stressed or worried about his studies -- just determined to get better.
"He was always smiling," she said.
Rodriguez and senior Austin Oser, 17, said Ahmed had the same attitude when it came to cross country.
"(Ahmed) asked me why I get so nervous and I told him I just worry about doing well," Oser said. "He didn't (worry). He's just running for the team."
Ahmed's grandmother, who is Somali, decided to move to Portland because of the strong Somali community there, Ahmed said. She insisted her grandson go with her.
Rexus said he was able to convince Ahmed's grandmother to let him stay and run with the team in a national cross-country meet in Beaverton earlier this month. After that, he worked to make sure Ahmed would be welcomed at his new high school, contacting the cross-country coach to keep an eye out for him.
Rexus and others said they would miss Ahmed's and Mohamed's contributions as runners next season, but the loss is deeper than that.
"I'm just as sad because of who they are," Rexus said.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; email@example.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver