There is a twinkle in James Li's eye as he tells the story about finding Lawi Lalang running on a dirt track in Eldoret, Kenya.

"All of this dust would cloud up every time the runners came by," says Li, the UA's associate head coach for track and field. When Lalang completed an informal 3,000-meter run that December day, 2009, Li checked a stopwatch and absorbed his good fortune.

Lalang's time was the equivalent of the best high school runner in America, and he had done so without ever being coached, without ever running in a track meet, and at an 8,000-foot altitude.

"No one else even knew about him," Li says now. "We were able to lock him up."

You can imagine the 1930s baseball scout who discovered young Bob Feller throwing 90 mph fastballs against a barn in Van Meter, Iowa, feeling the same way.

After meeting NCAA academic requirements, Lawi Lalang moved to Tucson in early January and began the first formal training of his athletic career. He had never lifted weights or done proper speed training.

Indeed, he referred to a workout on the track as "loops."

Now, entering the Pac-10 championships this weekend at Arizona's Drachman Stadium, Lalang is the No. 8-ranked 5,000-meter runner in college sports, and has already, as Li says, "obliterated" the time of ex-Wildcat Robert Cheseret, Arizona's two-time national championship 5,000-meter runner.

"I didn't know how fast I could run, because I had never been timed," says Lawang, a quick study who just completed his first semester at Arizona with, he says, "four A's and a B."

"Some people say this is too much to deal with, moving to America and going to the university and running against the best. But it is not. I can handle it."

This is a good time to be the distance running coach at Arizona.

Li's recruiting class this year not only included Lalang, but also Stephen Sambu, who grew up in Kaptagat, Kenya, about 10 miles from Lalang. As good as Lalang has been over the last four months, Sambu, who is the NCAA's No. 1-ranked 10,000-meter runner, has been better.

As recruiting classes go, Sambu and Lalang are roughly the same as a basketball coach bringing in Mike Bibby and Gilbert Arenas in the same group.

"People go to Kenya like crazy to find runners," says Li. "But I have a connection, and it helps."

A connection? That's a bit modest. It's like saying Tiger Woods could hook you up with some Nike golf clubs.

Li has been the coach of four-time world champion distance runner Bernard Lagat since recruiting him to Washington State out of Kapsabet, Kenya, in 1997. Lagat encouraged Olympian Boaz Lalang, the 2009 World Championships silver medalist at 800 meters, to move to Tucson to train with Li.

Boaz is Lawi's big brother. Not only that, the UA has produced two of the top Kenyan distance runners in college history: Martin Keino, who won NCAA titles in cross country and at 5,000 meters, and Cheseret, Lagat's brother, who won two NCAA titles while training for Li.

Boaz and Lagat have served as UA volunteer coaches.

"If not for Lagat, we'd probably not have gotten Boaz here, and if we had not gotten Boaz, we probably wouldn't have gotten Sambu and Lawi here," says Li. "But they see how well these guys do, and you get a reputation for training the right way. This is why these kids want to run for Arizona."

And there's more. On his 2009 visit to Kenya, Li also signed UA freshman distance runner Elvin Kibet, who helped the Arizona women's cross country team to its best finish ever, No.2, in the brutally difficult Pac-10 last fall. Kibet's sisters, Silvia and Hilda, have both been ranked in the top 10 in the world in distance events.

Talk about a connection.

"We've got a good thing going," says Fred Harvey, the director of UA track and field. "When you add athletes the quality of Stephen Sambu and Lawi Lalang in one year, it doesn't get any better than that."

In the distinguished history of UA distance running, from four-time Olympian George Young to six-time NCAA champion Amy Skieresz, Arizona has probably never landed someone as highly regarded as Sambu.

At Rend Lake (Ill.) Junior College, Sambu did not lose a race in 2009 and 2010. He twice won NJCAA titles in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. He won two NJCAA cross country titles.

Sambu is now rated No. 9 in the world, which includes all the pros, at 10,000 meters. He recently crushed the school record set by three-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman.

"In nine months, Stephen he has already cut 70 seconds off his best time," says Li. "He has a chance to be one of the best runners in the world. And in the long term, so does Lawi."

It is roughly 9,800 miles from Tucson to Eldoret, Kenya, a recruiting trip that sometimes seems to take forever. This does not deter Li.

"I might want to go there again," he says.

Up next

• What: Pac-10 championships

• When: 2:30 p.m. Friday; 3 p.m. Saturday

• Where: Drachman Stadium

Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or