COLUMBIA — Six members of the Rock Bridge boys cross country team stand together in the shade after a Wednesday afternoon team meeting with their coach, laughing and joking with one another. The runners share a close bond. They spend plenty of time together, whether it’s at practice twice a day during the week or at meets on the weekends.
The varsity team consists of seven runners. Senior team captain Caleb Wilfong is joined by seniors Nick Dale, Collin Sees and Jordan Cook; junior Nathan Keown; and sophomores Evan Schulte and Zach Cook.
“One of the things I like about cross country is even if you’re like, worried about a workout, these guys keep me laughing; they keep me rolling,” Wilfong said.
Lately, there's been other motivation, too.
Before the season began, the Powerade Fab 50 ESPNHS Boys Teams Ranking put the Bruins at No. 17 in the national poll. Within the state, both the Bruins boys and girls teams make appearances in rankings. Big River Running Company in St. Louis, which compiles a list of the top teams and runners in Missouri each year before season starts, has the boys team leading its list at No. 1 and the girls team at No. 8.
“At the state meet last year, our boys were second at state, and our girls were 11th at state," Rock Bridge coach Neal Blackburn said. "And I think the reason why we think our boys might be pretty good this year is we have all five of our guys that scored at state back from the runner-up squad.”
The Bruins runners said they enjoy the feeling of being ranked nationally, but they agreed they weren’t expecting it.
“You’re looking at times on paper; you’re not really looking at the team in general. So you take that one ranking, and you just kind of have to overlook it," Dale said. "I mean, yeah, it’s something cool to keep in the back of your mind. You know, it gives you a little bit of confidence, but you can’t let it go to your head."
Still, Blackburn said he thinks his team is proud of the recognition.
“I think the guys are welcoming it because I think they’ve wanted some of that respect, some of that notoriety, the things that come with that, because they’ve been on the brink for a couple years,” Blackburn said. “They work for everything they get. It’s their work, I mean, they deserve all the credit in the world.”
It's hard to ignore the closeness the Bruins runners share as a reason for their success. Caring about each other seems to be part of the Rock Bridge philosophy.
“You have to get away from running for yourself and get to running for the team,” Blackburn said in his team meeting Wednesday afternoon. And it is clear he means the program as a whole, from the freshmen teams all the way up through varsity. The message has resonated with the runners, and friendships can be found between athletes from all different levels.
“We know every single one of them, and we cheer for them during races, and they cheer for us, so it’s more of a friendship kind of bonding,” Jordan Cook said. "They’re putting out just as much pain and going through just as much pain as we are through every race, you know. Just because we might be going a little bit faster doesn’t change what we’re doing."