PERRY TWP. — The defending champion is still alive.
So is the boys 3,200-meter relay that has produced multiple state titles in recent years.
In Division III, this event has been a Stark County pride and joy at the state meet. It will be no different this year.
East Canton won the regional title and Central Catholic earned a state-qualifying fourth-place finish Wednesday at Perry. The Hornets will be aiming for a third 3,200 relay title in five state meets. The Crusaders won it all last year.
"As much as we have a rivalry with them, we're also good friends," Central lead-off runner Ian Paul said of East Canton. "It's kind of cool. We're both D3 teams and we're able to compete with some of the D1 schools. That's a good look for D3 teams in Stark County."
East Canton’s anchor Landen Demos takes the baton from Gabe Shilling during the third exchange in the boys 3,200-meter relay in the Division III regional track and field meet at Perry on Wednesday.
The Hornets made one thing perfectly clear. They are going to be tough to beat next Friday at Jesse Owens Stadium in Columbus.
Nick Martino, Brylan Holland, Gabe Shilling, and Landen Demos beat the field by just over 17 seconds and finished in 8:00.04. On the same track last month, East Canton ran a time of 7:55.95 at the Stark County Championships. It was still the state's top Division III time going into regionals.
"We were pretty upset with our performance here last year, getting third," Shilling said. "We were hungry this year. This is giving us a warm-up and a preview of what state is going to be like and what we're going to do out there."
A seventh-place finish at the 2021 state meet also gave the Hornets plenty of incentive coming into this season.
"We couldn't put it all together at the same time last year," Shilling said. "With us, all returning, we just came back hungry."
East Canton’s Gabe Shilling takes the baton from Brylan Holland during the second exchange in the boys 3,200-meter relay in the Division III regional track and field meet at Perry on Wednesday.
Martino has a shot to bookend his high school career with state championship medals. He ran on East Canton's state-winning 3,200 relays as a freshman in 2019.
His lead lap put the Hornets on pace for a regional title.
"I wanted to take it out quick," Martino said. "I wanted to finish up a little better than I actually did.
"Right now we're just kind of racing ourselves. We're just going for time. That first lap got us off to a good start."
With the Hornets' state berth practically assured barring disaster, the Crusaders had to fight their way in. Anchor Max Grillo made up two spots on his laps to secure the fourth and final automatic berth.
"I have so much faith in Max," Paul said. "When he got the baton, I kind of knew. He always finishes out strong. I kind of knew we had it in the bag."
Central Catholic’s Ian Paul hands to Dominic DePasquale (left) and East Canton’s Nick Martino hands to Brylan Holland during the first exchange in the boys 3,200-meter relay in the Division III regional track and field meet at Perry on Wednesday.
Paul and Grillo return from last year's championship 3,200 relay. They are joined this season by Dominic DePasquale and Aidan Nasvadi.
"We have a freshman and a sophomore," Paul said. "They haven't done anything like this before."
The four have not raced much together in recent weeks. A stress reaction in Paul's tibia has limited his race experience. He says the past few weeks have been "up and down."
"Survive and advance," he said.