By MICHELLE BROOKS
RUSSELLVILLE - Despite injuries and personal setbacks, the seniors on Cole County R-1 High School's boys and girls cross country teams persevered.
Behind them has been coach Craig Miller.
In the last four years, the seven seniors have experienced a variety of problems including the inability to eat solid food for the last year, an iron and heart deficiency, a torn ACL, severe hamstring injury, a broken leg from a car accident, shoulder surgery and a leg injury from a chainsaw.
"They didn't quit on me and I was not going to quit on them," Miller said.
Miller chose to coach one last season for these seniors.
"It is tough to stop coaching cross country," Miller said. "Those runners are like family to me."
When the seniors were in seventh grade, Miller said he knew then that they would be the building block for much higher success.
Their freshmen year, they brought home the school's first girls team state championship in any sport, then repeated in 2011. They were runners-up last year.
"I had never seen a bunch of girls so disappointed finishing second at state," Miller said.
The boys finished tenth last year and similarly were disappointed, he said.
"They met that night after state and vowed to win state in 2013," Miller said.
That they both did, accomplishing what only six other schools have done in the history of the Missouri State High School Activities Association.
"There may never be another run like this in any sport in Russellville sports history. I am just glad I was along for the ride when it happened," he said.
Alyson Bissonnette became the assistant coach last year, never having attended a meet. Now, she plans to continue coaching cross country for a long time.
"The runners respect him so much," she said. "Craig can spark a love and appreciation of long distance running in anyone - and I know this because he did in me."
His athletes agreed.
"He makes it fun to run," Jayce Tschirgi said.
Miller's positive influence stays with them on the course.
"Sometimes when I want to walk, I think "what would Craig say?'" Grace Young said.
Nick Haslag agreed, "He has such a positive attitude, he makes you want to do better."
Miller has joined the runners early in the morning before he heads to work at Farm Bureau. And he adjusts his work schedule to be there for practices after school, too.
"Craig is who you want to be when you get older," said Nick Haslag.
Miller had not been a coach. But when he read in a 2003 school newsletter they they might drop the program, he applied.
Ten years ago, few students were coming out for cross country.
"Cross country is not a sport around here that kids grow up wanting to do," Miller said. "I honestly asked just about anyone and everyone to give cross country a try.
"Once they came out and gave it a shot, these kids found out, they enjoyed it."
Miller is a runner himself.
"I ran a lot more when I was younger," he said. "You would think I could run more during cross country season, but I actually run less."
As coach, Miller is preoccupied with his athletes - making sure they are safe and accounted for.
"It does seem like cross country runners are a little different - in a good way, though," Miller said.
Almost all of his athletes also have excelled in the classroom.
"Those types of student athletes understand that you get out of it, what you put into it," he said. "They work hard in class, and outside the classroom, to be the very best."
The inspiration is reciprocal.
"I am motivated and inspired by the runners that I coach," Miller said. "Finding those student-athletes who enjoy the challenges that cross country provides and then to see them meet and exceed those challenges, it just breeds confidence."
Miller said he will miss the bus rides and talking strategy with the athletes.
"He's made us who we are," Tschirgi said. "He's built our character.
"We can take the same mindset we did in cross country and we can succeed anywhere."