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Badger’s Grexa, Lowellville’s Ballone star on busy first day of state track meet

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes Badger senior Katie Grexa clears a height of 5-4, setting a new personal best height while earning fourth in the high jump Thursday at the state championship track meet in Dayton. After missing the podium last June, she earned points this year for the Braves.

DAYTON – Badger senior Katie Grexa not so fondly remembers how her junior campaign concluded. Taking home 10th last year, her mission was to not miss the podium this time around.

A personal best mark of 5-4 was good enough for fourth place and a spot among the state’s top eight at the center of Dayton’s Welcome Stadium. Just standing tall with seven others was a feeling Grexa isn’t going to soon forget.

“I came in today, I just wanted to place, last year getting 10th, just missing out on placing. Staying calm throughout the whole thing and not trying to get nervous and trying to do my best,” Grexa said. “I really didn’t care what happened because I know that track isn’t my favorite sport, but just knowing that I came in here and did my best, and I PRed and I finished top four is amazing.

“It feels awesome because I did the same thing last year at regionals and state, I had my best jumps and PRed, and then just to do all again this year, it feels even better, it’s amazing.”

The competition was there to motivate Grexa.

“I’m happy for anybody that makes a height, but also, I know that it pushes me to be better and match them, and try to get a top mark.”

BALLONE WARMING UP

Lowellville’s Michael Ballone is no stranger to the biggest meet of the spring, stepping toe to toe against the state’s best for his third consecutive season. Wanting to expand his plate, he took on the task of adding long jump to his array of events this season, placing third at indoor within the event, now adding a fourth-place outdoor finish to his long jump resume.

His mark of 21-7 was set on his final attempt, having to plan his jumps around a 110 hurdles preliminary, and then a 300 hurdles preliminary. He advanced to the finals in both hurdles, along with the 4×400, but the Rockets senior was pleased to earn some hardware early.

“It was a stressful day, crazy planning with rides and everything, we were kind of in a rush before my 110 hurdles, we just added this event on this year,” Ballone said. “I didn’t jump necessarily as far as I wanted to, if I hit the board on my last couple of jumps, I probably would have been in the 22s, but it is what it is. Still happy with the end result.”

“I thought I could handle a fourth event, and I thought I had the energy in me to still do one. I used to do the long jump in middle school, and I thought I still had it, and came here and showed that today.”

He described his return to the event like riding a bike, but the Youngstown State commit sees indoor and outdoor track as a grind that not many people see, especially with field and running events mixed in.

It becomes a war of attrition.

“There’s a lot of hours you put in, in the dark that people aren’t going to see. It is what it is, sometimes you get to the big stage and you have to reflect on that, and remind yourself how hard you worked for this moment.”

VIENNA REPRESENTATIVE

It’s been several years since Mathews earned points and a medal at the state meet, but the Mustangs’ fortunes changed this time around. Junior Joseph Linkesh, who was in flight one following a regional meet that Linkesh wasn’t happy with, tossed a mark of 53-11 to take fifth.

“I didn’t really have a very good meet last weekend at Norwayne, unfortunately ended up in flight one, just wasn’t a good meet last week,” Linkesh said. “I caught the flu last week, it’s unfortunate because I’m the only person to ever get sick in the summer. I’m just glad to be here right now on the podium.

“I love these guys, but at the same time when I’m throwing I hate them, I want to beat them, that’s just how I am.”

One of the pillars of state track that make the event so special, is that anyone, from any town, in any part of the state can be seen and heard in front of thousands of spectators. Linkesh is the first athlete to earn hardware for Mathews since Kenny Wallace took third in the 1600 back in 2017.

“Very small school, lowest division in all sports, it’s such a surreal feeling. Everyone has your back here. Everyone knows everyone, everyone is family to you. It’s great. I got a clap out on the last day of school after I left for (Dayton), it was great,” he said.

AREA THROWERS ON THE PODIUM

McDonald’s throwers maintained their program’s stellar reputation Thursday, as three Blue Devils secured places on the podium in shot put or discus. McDonald junior Jack Reckard earned top-eight finishes in both boys events; he placed seventh in discus with a best throw of 163-2 before getting eighth in shot put with a throw of 53-5.25, a personal record.

“It’s an honor [placing in both events],” Reckard said. “It shows that hard work and that grind that you put in the offseason, that it all leads up to this.”

Reckard was joined on the discus podium by sophomore teammate Drew Zajack, who finished sixth with a 164-foot throw. A first-time state qualifier, Zajack, who missed out on the podium in shot put after finishing 10th, seemed unsatisfied with his performance Thursday, particularly in the discus.

“Obviously, I didn’t have my best day, but I obviously didn’t have my worst day,” Zajack said. “It wasn’t terrible for me, I guess. But it definitely was not my best.”

Mathews’ Linkesh finished the highest of any Division III area thrower; the Mustangs junior placed fifth in the shot put with a best throw of 53-11.

On the girls side, Windham’s Briah Daniel (39-8.50) and McDonald’s Cierra Shiley (39-6.50) placed sixth and seventh, respectively, and each set new PRs in the shot put. Daniel, a senior, improved from her eighth-place finish at states from last season, while Shiley, a sophomore, reached the podium in her first state meet appearance.

“I’ve worked so hard in the past couple of years for this, and it’s just a great feeling,” Daniel said. “I don’t think I can really describe it in words.”

WHAT’S NEXT

After a Division III-exclusive Thursday, Divisions I and II will begin their respective events today. The action will begin at 9 a.m. with a handful of Division II field events and the 4×800-meter relays before Division I starts its running events at 2 p.m.

After Division I and II complete their prelims, Division III will run its track event finals, beginning at 6:30 p.m. with the girls 100-meter hurdles. Numerous local athletes qualified for the finals via Thursday’s prelims, including Warren JFK’s boys 4×200 relay, LaBrae’s boys 4×100 relay, Springfield’s 4×400 relay and Cardinal Mooney’s Sammy Rotunno and Mineral Ridge’s Ava Hulett in the girls 300-meter hurdles.

Have an interesting story? Contact the Sports Department by email at sports@tribtoday.com. Follow us on X, formerly Twitter, @TribChronSports.

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