The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs men’s and women’s cross-country teams are being led by a pair of Woodmen-area high school graduates.

Afewerki “Afe” Zeru (Rampart, 2018) and Laila Almasri (Pine Creek, 2017) recently finished first in their respective races during the Rust Belt Classic on Sept. 7 at Monument Valley Park in Colorado Springs.

Zeru and Almasri, both have fascinating stories about how they chose UCCS.

Zeru was born in the East African country of Eritrea, but left his home with four friends at about age 10 and crossed the border into Ethiopia. He wound up in a refugee camp and lived there for four years until he was brought to the United States by Lutheran Family Services. Donnie and Lisa Thomassen became his foster parents.

“When we left our home (in Eritrea) we didn’t tell our parents and we thought we would come back the next day,” Zeru said. “When we got to the refugee camp, an Ethiopian soldier asked us if we wanted to go back. We decided to stay.”

Zeru’s primary sport at the time was soccer and he continued to focus on it through his junior year in high school at Rampart.

Along the way, he was encouraged to try cross-country by Rampart coach Robert Young.

“I saw him run and I said, ‘This guy is a diamond in the rough,’” said UCCS men’s coach Mark Misch. “I knew this guy could be pretty good. I thought he had tremendous upside.

“We talked his senior year and I said to him, ‘Let’s make this work.’”

As a high school senior, Zeru finished 18th at the Class 5A state cross-country meet, second on the team behind teammate Connor McCabe (now competing for the University of Arizona).

Last year as a true college freshman, Zeru placed 43rd at the NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships with an 8K time of 33:36.1. The top 40 finishers received All-American status.

Zeru is glad he chose UCCS. “I love this place. I love Colorado Springs,” said Zeru, who helped the Mountain Lions to a 12th-place team finish at last year’s NCAA Division II nationals. “I wasn’t sure I’d graduate high school, and here I am.”

Almasri’s arrival at UCCS was dramatic in its own way.

“Layla has shown that putting in the work can pay off,” said Mountain Lions women’s coach Corey Kubatzky. “She’s a fierce competitor and she demands excellence for herself.”

Kubatzky met Almasri met when she was a junior at Pine Creek. Her times in the mile and 5K that year fell short of the cutoff Kubatzky was looking for in recruits. He invited her to try out to walk on the team.

But during her senior year at Pine Creek, Almasri improved enough to force Kubatzky to rethink things. Almasri finished 19th in the state at the 2016 Class 4A cross-country finals and was the No. 1 runner on a strong Pine Creek team. A few months later at the state track and field meet, she took second place in the 800 meters.

“I didn’t start taking off until that track season,” Almasri said.

Kubatzky knew he had to act fast or he might lose Almasri.

“I’m thankful she’s made me look good,” the coach said with a smile.

As a college freshman in 2018, Almasri led the UCCS women to an 11th place finish at the NCAA Division II finals.

Almasri credits Pine Creek’s cross-country coach Max Oliver as playing a key role in her success.

“He put it in my head one day that I could run in college,” she said. “That’s all I needed to hear. I started training hard in the offseason.”

Almasri is loving her experience at UCCS.

“I think a lot of people completely overlook that we have an amazing school in our own backyard,” said Almasri, who is majoring in health care sciences. “I know that when we go to meets at other colleges, I am so happy to get back to my school.”

Almasri also competes for the UCCS track and field team. She made the all-RMAC Second Team in the 1500 as a freshman and qualified for the NCAA nationals.

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