JEFFERSON CITY — Walking alongside the Rock Bridge boys cross country team as it made its way through the crowd after its race at the state championship meet was like walking with movie stars through the paparazzi. Runners and parents from all of the different schools stopped to congratulate the runners by patting them on the back and shaking their hands.
Bruins coach Neal Blackburn ran up to the group of runners right after he saw the official scores.
“You guys, state champions. State champions. State champions, baby,” Blackburn kept repeating to his team while smiling when he hugged each of the runners.
Led by senior Caleb Wilfong's first-place finish, the Rock Bridge program had just earned its first Class 4 boys state championship.
The Rock Bridge girls team finished second in its race, another first for the Bruins' program.
It made Saturday's state championships in Jefferson City a special day for both teams, which have been ranked at the top of the Big River Running Company's state ranking for most of the season.
In the boys race, Wilfong and Rockhurst's Zach Herriott were billed as the top contenders.
“I think things settled down after about a mile and a half,” Wilfong said of Saturday's 5K race. “I stayed in it mentally, and I didn’t let anything get me down. I stayed on top of the world, and that’s just what happened at the end."
Contrary to expectations, Herriott ended up in 13th place out of the 172 runners, and Rock Bridge senior Jordan Cook was even able to pass Herriott for seventh. Cook said he could see Wilfong throughout the race and was nervous for him at first when Herriott was in the lead. But ultimately, Herriott grew tired and slowed down.
“When I came up around the corner, I was faster than Zach Herriott, so I was like, 'Oh, Caleb’s fine,'” Cook said.
Another Rock Bridge senior, Nick Dale, said he kept an eye on Wilfong as he progressed through the race.
“I saw Caleb take Herriott. I was like, 'Oh, he’s actually going hard for this one. Caleb’s really feeling it,'” Dale said. “Then I saw Herriott falling back, and that’s when I thought, 'We’re actually going to be able to do this. This is really going to be our time.'"
Wilfong crossed the finish line in 15 minutes, 54 seconds.
“That’s one of those Class 4 races they’re going to talk about for years to come,” Blackburn said.
At the beginning of the race, Wilfong and Herriott had raced back and forth. Then, after finally passing Herriott for good, Wilfong realized he was about to win the championship. He said it was a special moment.
“It’s a natural high, I haven’t stopped smiling for about an hour and 30 minutes,” Wilfong said, the smile still plastered on his face.
The results of the girls race made Blackburn feel pretty good, too.
“It’s almost as good of a day as you can possibly have, and on this day it was the best we were going to have,” Blackburn said.
The Bruins had three boys place in the top 25 to earn All-State honors. Joining Wilfong and Cook were sophomore Evan Schulte, who finished 20th. Two of the Bruins girls were also All-State. Senior Sam Garrett finished 18th in 19:57, and freshman Kayla Funkenbusch was 25th in 20:13.
Blackburn smiled proudly as he joined his runners at the awards ceremony. Even after the announcements were over and the crowd had left, Blackburn stuck around to take photos with his runners.
“Every team has a special place in your heart, but these guys were kind of groundbreaking in what they were able to achieve this year,” Blackburn said. “It’s been a really fun journey."