You could call them the three amigos - Kyle Joynes, Patrick Kunkel and Bobby Johnson. McDonald's top three paced the Blue Devils to the school's sixth state boys cross country championship in the fall of 2011.
McDonald won its fourth Division III state title (winning Class A titles in 1982 and 1983), dominating the field - including two-time defending champion Independence, which took second.
Joynes was the first of the Blue Devil finishers at the state's new venue - National Trail Raceway. Kunkel and Johnson weren't too far behind to give the Blue Devils' their first state title since 2004.
Tribune Chronicle file photo / John Vargo
Lakeview’s Eric Harris runs at last year’s Division II regional meet in Boardman. Harris qualified for the state meet and is one of the area’s top returning runners.
Since slot machines were approved in June 2011 and eventually installed at Scioto Downs and other racetracks, the state meet had to find a new site. The Ohio High School Athletic Association has been adamant on its stance against gambling.
Enter NTR, a NHRA drag strip that became cross country's new Holy Grail, per se.
Although the state meet didn't have the feel of Scioto Downs were 10,000 packed the stands and stood, reverberating cheers to the runners on the grassy surface inside the racetrack.
"Scioto Downs had a very special atmosphere, but NTR is a great course as well," McDonald boys coach Chris Rupe said.
Both were fast tracks, but NTR seemed a bit quicker and allowed the fans more access more like a district or regional meet.
"The course probably allows more opportunity for fans to 'chase' the action," Lakeview boys coach Sean Voorhies said. "Last year though, it seemed to lack the 'electricity' and 'excitement' that Scioto Downs provided. But I may be just being traditional and resistant, somewhat, to change."
That said, this year's area cross country landscape will change as well.
Maplewood seems to have a loaded team coming back led by senior Wyatt Hartman, who should have plenty of scholarship offers this season.
But, as usual, right behind them is McDonald, led by Kunkel and Johnson. Joynes graduated and is running for Youngstown State. Allan Coviello, who was part of last year's team, goes into the third spot for McDonald. Coviello took top 20 at Saturday's Billy Goat Invitational.
Both of these teams have a shot at top five in Division III.
Boardman junior Mark Hadley placed fifth at last year's Division I state meet, the best finish by an area Division I athlete since Niles' Chris Acs took runner-up in 1999 at Scioto Downs.
Look for Hadley to not only improve upon those times, but have a legitimate shot of winning an individual state championship this year. He, along with teammate Alan Burns, could carry Boardman to state.
Austintown Fitch has some potential as well with Bryce Baker. Baker averaged around 17 minutes per outing on the road race circuit this summer.
Speaking of Fitch, junior Carissa Jenkins was 11th in Division I.
Her and Hadley gave area DI athletes their best showing in quite some time.
As for Jenkins, she is this year's female athlete to beat. She, like Hadley did last year, should claim a top five spot at state.
Following closely behind Jenkins are the Poland sisters, McKenzie, Melissa and Michelle Klim pacing the area's best girls team. Boardman and Howland are interchangeable at two and three, but I give the edge to Howland because of sophomores Morgan Buckley and Taylor Craigo. These two pace the resurgence of great distance running for the Tigers.
Buckley is the defending Trumbull County champion.
Maplewood, which has been well represented in recent years at state, and McDonald, which has gone to state 13 of the last 14 years, are still very strong in Division III.
As for the boys, look for Lakeview's Eric Harris and Christopher Edie, Liberty's Jonathan Richmond and Howland's Ryan Sullivan to have great years.
Harris and Edie are pacing a team that returns four of its top five from last year. Maybe this is the year Lakeview gets back to state? It would be first time since coach Voorhies went with his Bulldog team in the mid 1990s.
Richmond was a strong runner all season and finished second at the Division II district at the Trumbull County Fairgrounds.
Sullivan is part of a strong Howland distance crew both boys and girls. It's nice to see distance running becoming more prevalent in the Tigers' community.
Like every year, they'll also be a few more people racing to the head of the pack that aren't the usual suspects.