COLUMBIA — With 103 runners, Rock Bridge High School's cross-country team has twice as many participants as its Columbia counterparts Hickman and Battle high schools put together.
During the last decade, Rock Bridge cross-country, whose boys team won the state title in 2011 and girls team is currently ranked first in the state, experienced a steady rise in participation.
"We're riding an all-time high," head coach Neal Blackburn said. "Last year was one of our spikes. The three years before that, we were in the 70s."
Blackburn said he believes a successful team and heavy recruiting has contributed to the rise in participation. However, he said, the runners play the biggest factor in recruiting classmates.
"We have a lot of kids that do a good job of having relationships with other kids, and they see the fun and excitement and commitment," Blackburn said. "They then want to be part of something that might be special and unique."
Like his athletes, Blackburn puts a lot of work into recruiting runners to the team. He meets with Gentry and Jefferson middle schools' coaches to learn about their runners and talks to them about running in high school.
Blackburn also uses the Show-Me State Games to find runners. As an organizer for the games, which include track and field events for kids as young as 4, he is able to recruit students who may not run cross country already.
"I get to see all kinds of kids, so if I see kids in the 14, 15, 16 age group, I ask them what school they go to," Blackburn said. "If they say Gentry or Jefferson, then I have a conversation."
A potential sense of accomplishment, Blackburn hopes, will ultimately lure these runners into the program.
"I think that sense of accomplishment is underrated in today's culture, and I think that is something we are trying to breed," Blackburn said. "There are so many opportunities to get that here."
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