When Alex Riba became a major contributor to the O'Fallon cross country program in 2010, the Panthers were already one of the top programs in the metro-east.
Three years later, with his legacy as the top runner in school history secure, Riba departs a Panthers' program that is one of the top five in the state.
"Well, look at what the program has done since Alex has been here. His sophomore year we were fifth and the last two years we've been second. What does that tell you?'' O'Fallon coach Jon Burnett said. "He was in that group of kids who went from being happy just being at the state meet to not being happy unless we finished in the top five."
Second in the Class 3A meet a year ago as an individual, Riba put the finishing touch on his high school career last month at Detweiller Park in Peoria with a fourth-place medal and a personal best (3-mile) time of 14 minutes, 15 seconds.
With all of those accomplishments, Riba has no problem picking out the highlight.
"I would say it was last year when we got our first state trophy,'' Riba said. "We got another one this year and it was a great accomplishment to be able to finish second again.
"But winning our first state trophy was really great for the program. It was a great experience to be there and to be a part of that. I had a great performance that day, so that made it even better.''
Riba has been recognized by area coaches as the recipient of the Belleville News-Democrat co-runner of the Year. He shares the honor with O'Fallon teammate Patrick Perrier, who placed third at the Class 3A state meet.
The top duo in the state this season, Riba and Perrier are friends, teammates and rivals. They brought out the best in each other.
"There is no question in my mind that without Patrick I wouldn't have been able to do the things I was able to do at state and I'm sure it's vice versa," Riba said. "We pushed each other and just made each other faster.
"I would say there was a rivalry there. We're both very competitive and, of course, you want to win. But I would say it was a friendly rivalry. It was never over the top of what teammates should have with each other.''
Riba said he didn't change much in his training for the 2012 season. Although he did put in more mileage over the summer, the biggest improvement came in his mental game.
"Being a year older, I also had more strength,'' Riba said. "Mentally, I was probably stronger than I had been in past years because I had the experience of running at state and doing well.
"I had it in my mind that I'm one of the top returning guys in the state and I know that I can do this.''
Riba also proved that he is one of the elite runners in the Midwest. Less than two weeks after placing fourth at the Class 3A state meet, Riba won the Nike Midwest Cross Country championship, which qualified him for the Nike Cross Country Nationals in Portland, Ore., last month.
Running in swamplike conditions after heavy rain turned the Portland Meadows 5K course into a mudpit, Riba finished 75th in the field that included competitors from all 50 states. There were over 200 runners in the field
Riba finished in 18:23.5.
"It was a very elite field with state champions from all over,'' Riba said. "The course is on a horse track and it had rained the night before and so the course was saturated. The finish was on a straightaway and the water was shin deep. That's how bad it was.
"They had to get pumps to pump it out.''
Riba said he was pleased to have the chance to run against the nation's very best.
"I would have liked to have done better," he said. "The course was flooded by water and I didn't quite get out fast enough to get into position. The winning time was in the 17s. and again we're talking about the best high school runners in the nation competing here.
"I've never run in anything close to those type conditions before.''
Burnett said he will remember many things about coaching Riba. But mainly his mental toughness and the ability to rise to the occasion.
"Alex has a lot of God-given talent. But he has that inner strength to be able to push himself as far as he can go,'' Burnett said. "He also has a threshold of pain that I haven't had in an athlete before. He just willed himself to do things that you didn't think were possible.''
The son of Bryan and Kim Riba, Alex Riba is looking at several colleges. He already has made official NCAA visits to Alabama and Auburn and will visit both Texas A&M and Arkansas in early January.