It was not the breakthrough moment it should have been for Mohamed Cisse.
For two years the Largo High School senior sprinter had lurked in the shadows while others basked in the spotlight. Not many noticed his 2A West Region title in the 300 meters earlier in the indoor track season. Few remembered that he helped the Lions 1,600-meter relay team put Lackey on the ropes at the state championship meet his sophomore year.
But the Maryland 2A indoor championship meet this past February was his time, his moment. Cisse would no longer be just another name on the heat sheet. He would be the one with the asterisk next to it.
His moment came when he finished the 300-meter final in 35.34 seconds. It drew hardly a blink of an eye or a gasp from the crowd, although it should have captivated the audience, earned double-takes from competitors, and put him on the map.
Even after taking the state title that day in record-setting fashion, Cisse said he remains largely unnoticed by his competitors, forever an underdog.
“Nobody expects us to win, nobody expects us to do anything,” Cisse said. “Even after I won the state title people were saying, ‘if you were in a heat with this guy or that guy you wouldn't have won.' We use it as motivation on a daily basis. It's the fuel for our fire.”
Cisse doesn't mind his never-ending role as the underdog, bursting from the shadows when the gun sounds and slipping right back into them after he crosses the finish line.
“He thrives on being the underdog, being that athlete you don't expect,” said Largo assistant coach Onyachi Chuku. “He thrives on that high intensity, high pressure situation. He has the mentality that he has something to prove every single time.”
You would think he might get weighed down by the bowling ball-sized chip on his shoulder that's been growing since 2010. But Cisse is only getting faster. His 35.34 performance in the 300 set a 2A state indoor meet record.
His time of 48.52 in his first 400 of the outdoor season at the Waldorf Track Classic ranked second in the state at the time, second only to Henry A. Wise standout Champ Page. Then he ran a 48.34 at the McNamara Mustang Invitational last weekend. He now has the third-best time in the state this season after Riverdale Baptist's Chris Tate flew for a 47.99 at the McNamara Invitational, but Cisse remains comfortably in the top 20 in the nation.
“That 400 [at the Waldorf Classic] was his first of the season,” Chuku said. “He wanted to see where he's at and now every time he's going to keep going after that time and keep chipping away at it. Every time he runs he's going to keep getting better, going to keep getting faster.”
That's largely been the case for Cisse throughout his career. This past indoor season he hit personal records in all of his events on the final race of the year. He improved his time in the 300 by nearly a second over the course of the season. His fourth-place time of 6.63 seconds in the 55-meter dash at the state championship meet was .11 seconds better than when he had started the season.
The successful start of his outdoor season potentially foreshadows a victory-laden year of fast times and state championships, which the quietly confident runner all but guaranteed.
“Yes,” he declared when asked if he expects to take home more state crowns. “In both the 400 and 200.”
In the 400 one of Cisse's chief rivals is a teammate. Niko Coaxum has raced along Cisse's side for two years now, lining up for the 300 together four times throughout the indoor season, including the 2A West Region meet, where Cisse took first and Coaxum was second.
Coaxum was forced to miss the indoor state championships with a nagging hamstring injury and even if nobody else knew it, Cisse said he was positive if it wouldn't be Coaxum winning the state championship, it would be him.
The state title was expected, he said. He wasn't surprised that he had won by nearly half a second or that he had broken a state record, he knew both were his to take.
Now midway through the outdoor season, with a state title and record in hand, Largo coach Daryl Hamilton isn't sure if Cisse can still play the underdog role he has played for so many years.
“He can't really be an underdog anymore,” Hamilton said with a laugh. “I mean, he got a state title, right? But people still aren't really talking about Mohamed and he doesn't say anything about it. He just comes to practice and works hard.”