COLUMBIA - Caleb Wilfong sits and laughs with friends while the Rock Bridge cross-country team stretches.
Sometimes he gets a little too caught up in a joke and his teammates have to call his name to pull his attention back to the warmup. Meanwhile, Jordan Cook cracks a smile as a he stretches, quietly watching the commotion.
The two freshman runners, a study in contrasting personalities, may blend in with the rest of the runners while stretching at practice, but it's hard to deny the impact they have on the team. Despite their youth, Wilfong and Cook are among Rock Bridge's top four runners on a varsity squad that is filled out by four seniors and a junior.
While it is unusual to have one runner in the top four, let alone two, only senior Matty Bennett and junior Chris Cornell sit higher than the freshmen. Though attaining the second spot is likely unreachable, Wilfong and Cornell compete for it.
"Right now what's really cool about this team is that they're really unselfish," coach Neal Blackburn said. "... It doesn't really matter to them as long as they know they have a chance to be at the top of every meet."
The team's undisputed top runner, Bennett, welcomes the freshman invasion.
"I think it's really impressive," Bennett said. "Just the fact that they can come in with such determination and kind of, like, even set an example for our older guys."
Both runners are turning in impressive times, as well. At the Forest Park Cross Country Festival held Sept. 13 in St. Louis, Wilfong and Cook both turned in sub-18 minute times in both runners' first 5K race.
"I always feel like 18 minutes is a nice benchmark for a first race," Blackburn said. "If you can be under 18 that's great, because I feel like the potential to get under 17 (minutes) by the end of the season definitely exists."
Wilfong managed a 41st-place finish, impressive in the field of 197 runners. That was good for the second position among Rock Bridge runners, behind only Bennett's 11th place finish. Cook had an excellent finish as well, placing 60th and coming in directly after his teammate Cornell.
Though their high school careers are just starting, running isn't new to either athlete.
Cook traces his track beginnings to fifth grade at Columbia Catholic School.
"In PE I'd always beat everyone in, like, the mile and stuff, so I kinda figured I'd go out for track," Cook said.
Wilfong had a similar path. His father, a runner himself who has run the Boston Marathon, fits prominently into his story.
"I started, definitely, because I did really good in the mile for school," he said. "When my dad realized I was good at running he got me out running a bit more. We'd go on runs in the morning and stuff."
Wilfong also had success on the national stage this summer. He finished third in his age group in the 1,600-meter run at the Hershey Track and Field Games North American Final in August in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
"It was really cool," Wilfong said. "We got to go there, we went to the amusement park there, we went to the plant for the chocolate. ... We ran the nationals- the meet- and that was a pretty good atmosphere."
Both runners also have the advantage of a genuine love of what they do.
"I just really like running, and it just feels really good to run," Cook said.
Wilfong admits a slow start when asked if he's always enjoyed running.
"Not as much as I do now, for sure, because I used to, like, not really enjoy going out on the Tuesday mornings... But Coach makes it fun."
The two runners further complement each other with different personalities. Though Wilfong is a little more open than Cook during the week, Cook shows his aggressiveness and tenacity on meet days.
"It's kind of cool because I think if they were both like one another they might drive each other crazy with the amount of time they will eventually spend together," Blackburn said. "... They'll complement each other real well and keep each other grounded in a positive way."
Cook and Wilfong haven't made it to where they are with just their personalities, though. Both athletes put in a lot of effort to excel in their sport.
"Both Caleb and Jordan have worked real hard to be in the position they are now, and, obviously, they both have a great amount of talent," he said, "but it's their work ethic that, I think, is going to make them very special runners."
Blackburn adds that the future looks increasingly bright for the two.
"They have the right makeup to be very, very good. I'm just excited that they have an opportunity to do it together."