JEFFERSON CITY — As Rock Bridge senior Raj Lal stumbled through the final strides of his last high school cross country race, his legs buckling with fatigue and lungs gasping for air, the intensity of the 2009 state cross-country championships was on full display.
Lal, like several other high school competitors that raced on Saturday, found himself in the medical tent after collapsing just a few steps past the finish line.
"He (Lal) ran the best race of his life," Rock Bridge coach Neal Blackburn said after making sure his athletes were OK. "His goal and Chris Cornell's goal was to finish and have nothing left, and those guys literally did that. I couldn't be more proud of those two."
Lal's 5K time of 17:23 helped the Bruins secure third place, the first time Rock Bridge has left the Oak Hills Golf Center in Jefferson City with a trophy. Sophomore Caleb Wilfong finished in 16:54, good for 15th , and fellow sophomore Jordan Cook came in 23rd in 17:03. Lal was 38th. St. Louis University High won the Class 4 boys race with 65 points followed by Lee's Summit North (75) and Rock Bridge (1:26:28).
"We're elated that we got third," Blackburn said.
The boys Class 4 race was postponed nearly 30 minutes while medical staff tended to a runner who had fainted on the course during the Class 3 girls race.
"It was probably more on the coaches than athletes," said Blackburn of any possible impact the delay had on his team. "In actuality, it gave them (the athletes) a chance to chill for a second before they went and took care of business."
Blackburn said the 75 degree weather, the emotions of the event itself and a pack of fine runners made the race seem more daunting than it really was.
"I think with the temperature today, we could have run on a track and it would have been tough," Blackburn said.
Hickman freshman Nicole Mello impressed her coaches with a 19th-place finish in 20:07, racing in the state championship for the first time.
"We've been spoiled with her this year," Hickman assistant coach Ryan Pingrey said of Mello. "In districts, sectionals and state, she's come through for us."
Mello said the finish made the day special.
"I'm really happy with it," she said. "Coming here as a freshman, I knew it was going to be intense, and I knew there was going to be tons of competition, but I was just happy to get out there. To place in the top 25 is awesome."
Runners struggled all day with a challenging course and unseasonably warm weather, but Mello said the conditions didn't faze her.
"During the race, I was trying to keep a positive attitude. The beginning is the toughest part because you try and get out there with the pack," Mello said. "It was a really good cross country course."
Hickman coach Steve Kissane said the performance reflected Mello's personality.
"To run in these kind of conditions and to be up there takes a lot of courage," Kissane said. "She's very positive about everything. It's been a great postseason for her. We're real proud of her."
Junior Dana Ivanova, the only other girls runner to compete for Hickman, was 132nd in 22:56.
The Rock Bridge girls team placed 11th. Sophomore Sam Garrett was 65th, completing the hilly 5K course in 21:26. Sophomore Callie Floyd was 85th place in 21:42.
Senior Seth O'Laughlin led the the Hickman boys team to a 13th place finish. O'Laughlin, who fell down from exhaustion at one point during the race and had to be helped from the medical tent by his father and Kissane after the race, finished in 28th in 17:15.
Kissane said accomplishments of this year's team marks an important step in the development of the Kewpies' program.
"We were disappointed last year not getting through with the boys," Kissane said. "To rebound from last year's disappointment, to get two girls individuals in and to have one on the podium is really nice. We'll take the improvement and look forward to next year."