COLUMBIA — Extra pressure comes with a No. 1 ranking, but the Rock Bridge girls cross-country team chooses to relish it.
And head coach Neal Blackburn said he only expects his runners to stay there.
"There is always a bit of extra pressure, but they'd be offended if they weren't ranked first," Blackburn said. "Some of the girls texted me after the rankings came out saying they got it right."
The girls team finished fifth last year in the state final. However, the team returns its top three runners from last year, including seniors Sam Farmer and Kayla Funkenbusch — one reason why the team is ranked so high. Farmer finished 15th in the state in 2013, while Funkenbusch finished 30th. Both agree that being first in the state is a positive for them.
"We definitely enjoy it," Farmer said. "It is great that they are recognizing us and all of our hard work."
The boys team, meanwhile, opens the season ranked seventh in the state. Blackburn said while the team has had success in previous years — winning the state title in 2011 and finishing second last year — he wants them to focus only on this season, while still holding themselves to Rock Bridge's standard of success.
The boys will be led by senior Lucas Harrington, who finished 59th in the state last year and fourth on the team. Harrington is the lone returning runner from Rock Bridge's top five from last year.
"Last year has motivated me a lot. We were expecting to win and didn't, but we expect to win the trophy this year," Harrington said. "Personally, being the number one (runner) on the team, I hope to be a leader for the younger runners."
Coach Blackburn said getting varsity meet experience for the junior varsity runners will keep Rock Bridge at the top of the standings. He said he values the varsity and junior varsity teams equally and sometimes spends as much time working with his 27th runner as he does with a top five runner. After losing four of his top five runners from 2013 because of graduation, his system will be put to the test this year.
"We have such a new group. I think the pressure in this group is to uphold the tradition," Blackburn said. "But they are saying 'it's our turn.' I think that is the feeling they have."
Both of Rock Bridge's cross-country teams will start their season on Sept. 6 at the Liberty Invitational at Scottsdale Park in Liberty.
Supervising editor Raymond Howze.