It was during the summer that Rock Bridge senior Jimmy Keown began realizing what might be in store for this year’s Bruins cross country team. He could feel the expectations of the upcoming season rising while running with other teammates.
“We hoped we could do our best,” Keown said, “and in the back of my mind, there was the possibility that maybe we could do this.”
By “this,” Keown is referring to the record-breaking season he and his teammates have put together this fall. For the first time in Rock Bridge history, the boys’ team has won three meets, setting a school record for invitational wins. Keown has also finished first in three of the five meets, establishing a personal record.
“Coach (Neal) Blackburn has really turned things around,” Keown said. “He is successfully creating a tradition of winning at Rock Bridge.”
The record-breaking team is an inexperienced one.
Keown is the only four-year runner on a team that features three freshmen and two sophomores. The Bruins’ No. 2 runner, Phillip King, is in his first year of racing. Keown said the team is benefiting by having such a youthful squad.
“Sometimes the freshmen go into a race blind,” Keown said. “In some ways, it is an advantage to us because they don’t stress out or are intimidated by the competition because they don’t know anything about them. They just show up and race.”
Blackburn said he did not expect this type of season because of the lack of experience.
“To win an invitational with three freshmen and a first-year runner is huge,” Blackburn said.
One of the contributing freshmen, Jeff Kaiser, is the team’s No. 3 runner. He has obliterated almost every freshman cross country record at Rock Bridge. Kaiser beat the previous 5K record by nearly 30 seconds with a time of 17:01 at the Parkway West Invitational on Oct. 2.
The Bruins finished second and third in the two races it failed to win. One of those losses was to Jefferson City, which Blackburn said will be the Bruins’ toughest competition at the district meet.
“I think our confidence needs to continue to grow,” Blackburn said. “We need our runners to peak at the right time. Fortunately for us, we have been running our fastest times of the year at the right time.”
For Keown, he will have stiff competition in the individual portion of the district meet. Tim Cornell, a Hickman senior, is the defending district and state champion and has won four consecutive races. Cornell and Keown have not raced against each other this year.
“Tim’s an awesome runner and I respect him a lot,” Keown said. “I’ll race my best and you never know how things will turn out.”
Blackburn said racing Cornell always poses a difficult challenge, but Keown will not be affected by Cornell’s presence.
“Jimmy’s goal isn’t to go out there and beat someone individually,” Blackburn said. “His goal is to beat himself timewise from week-to-week. We can’t control what Cornell is going to do.”
Keown’s dedicated work ethic has put him in this position to challenge Cornell, Blackburn said. His increased focus on running has led to a deeper level of commitment this year, Blackburn said.
“He’s one of the few kids I’ve had in my nine years of coaching who has done everything I’ve asked of him training-wise,” Blackburn said. “After last track season, Jimmy said to me, ‘Everything I’ve got to do to be better, give it to me. I’m willing to go after it.’”
Blackburn said he plans on resting most of his varsity squad, Keown included, in hopes of having fresh runners going into the district meet.
“I want them to set their blinders on for the next couple of weeks with districts, sectionals and state coming up,” Blackburn said.
The extra rest should help Ryan Neff, usually the No. 3 runner, recover from an injury. Neff has a pre-stress fracture in his right shin bone that has sidelined him for weeks. Blackburn said Neff needs the extra time to see if it can heal, and hopefully he will be well enough to run in districts.