Denzell Feagin of the Pickerington High School Central boys track and field team acknowledges there is a certain pressure that comes with the Tigers being defending Division I state champions for the first time.

"It puts a little bit of pressure on us just because people think that if you won last year, they automatically expect us to do it again this year," said Feagin, a junior. "We try to stay focused and keep that same energy going into every race that we need to do better. We can't win enough. You can't ever do good enough."

Feagin helped the 800-meter relay place second and was fourth in the 100 and sixth in the 200 at state last year, when Central won three events and scored 58 points to finish well ahead of runner-up Centerville (36.5). Several of those key contributors are back, including defending 300 hurdles champion Evan Matthews -- an Ohio State recruit -- and senior sprinter Terry Simuel, who was part of the championship 1,600 relay.

"The sprinters were the main reason (we won). You look at the teams that win, they have a great stable of sprinters," 14th-year coach Jason Roach said. "Can you win it with field events and distance? Yes, but it's hard. Usually you see a good hurdler, three or four really good sprinters and then strong relays. ... You look at us. We won the (3,200, with 2018 graduate Matt Scrape), we had a placer in the 800 (senior Brady Johnson, who finished eighth), we had a winner in the 300 hurdles and guys in the 100, the 200, the 400 ... we might never see that again here."

Central opened March 23 by finishing last of seven teams with 35 points in its annual home meet, the Hammond Relays, as OCC-Ohio Division rival Lancaster won (121). Most of the Tigers' varsity athletes did not compete because of spring break, although the 3,200 relay of Johnson, senior Tyler Gunderson, junior Max Smart and sophomore Garner Wallace won in 8 minutes, 31.9 seconds and senior thrower Karter Johnson was second in the shot put (50 feet, 2 inches).

Karter Johnson is a TCU football recruit who played baseball the past several years.

"Some guys work four years and if they're lucky, they throw 50 feet. He shows up and throws 50 feet," Roach said. "He had some practices under him and has done some work here and there, but that's just not normal. He's on a different level of athleticism."

According to Roach, other expected contributors include senior Braydon Harlor (distance), juniors Brandon Bonsu (sprints) and Bo Branson (pole vault), sophomore Lorenzo Styles (sprints) and freshman Jailen Willis (distance).

According to MileSplit.com, Styles owned the fastest indoor 60 time in the country last week among all sophomores with a 6.81. He recorded that time when he finished second in the state indoor meet March 2 at SPIRE Institute in Geneva.

Senior Marvin Brooks, Feagin, Matthews and Simuel won the 800 relay indoor title (1:28.76).

"We'll just try to go out and compete again this year and chase another state title. We'll see what happens," said Feagin, who will compete in the high jump in addition to sprints. "All we can do is work hard."

State champion Wood leads young girls team

Ohio State recruit Jaydan Wood, last year's Division I state champion in the 400, is the only senior on the girls track and field team, and only five of Central's 36 athletes are upperclassmen.

Wood swept the OCC-Ohio, district, regional and state titles in the 400, winning state in 54.18. She also finished fifth in the 200 and is one of two returnees from the fourth-place 800 relay, along with junior Aija Cason.

At the state indoor meet, Wood won the 400 (55.4) and placed fifth in the 200 (25.08).

"We're healthy and looking strong. We're very young," fourth-year coach Hunter Nichols said. "Jaydan is our only senior and we had some distance girls not come back, which hurt."

Rounding out the junior class are Diamond Huyhn (distance), Simone Mahan (jumps, sprints) and Madison Potts (throws).

Central opened with a fifth-place finish (35) in the seven-team Hammond Relays as defending Division I state champion Gahanna won (139). The 800 relay of sophomores Jasmine Essilfie and Zora Shakhan and freshmen Ramiya Roy and Deborah Smith led the Tigers with a second-place finish (1:50.13).

"These kids enjoy being down here. They work hard," Nichols said. "Ramiya was the junior high state champ in the 100 and 200 last year. She is a solid athlete overall. She ran a 12.1 and 24.8 in the 100 and 200 last year. She'd have been on the bubble to be a (high school) state qualifier last year. We are still working with her."

Freshman Chloe Jackson is expected to be among the team's top sprinters after finishing fourth in the 100 (13.9) at the Hammond Relays. Smith was fourth in the 200 (29.71).

Other expected contributors include sophomores Megan Burton (sprints, pole vault), Jenna Carr (long jump) and Olivia Hammond (distance) and freshman Kat Moss (distance).

"These girls have gotten more diligent about their training," Nichols said. "They know how important it is to get work in early in the year instead of later when everybody else is already in top shape."

Boys tennis team off to solid start

Boys tennis coach Kelli Rings encouraged her team to enjoy its fast start, but warned her players that challenges await as the Tigers try to improve on last year's three-way tie for their first OCC-Ohio championship since 2003.

Central was 6-1 before beginning league play April 9 at North. The Tigers went 4-1 in the OCC-Ohio last year, tied for first with the Panthers and Gahanna.

Sophomore Brady Phelps played first singles the first two weeks of the season, with junior Cooper Stang and sophomore Jack Philabaum at second and third singles, respectively.

Phelps played third singles last year and moved up after the graduations of Central's top two singles players in Leyton Mathias and Jeremy O'Coner, who were the team's only two Division I district qualifiers a season ago.

"Brady definitely is settling in and looking like a No. 1 should," said Rings, who is in her 16th season.

"He only lost one match all of last year. He's improved on his defense and gets a lot of shots over the net. He knew what he had to do coming into this season, he worked hard all winter and he's done well so far."

Senior Karson Stanley and junior Stevan Klein have played first doubles thus far this season, while second doubles has included senior Arya JohnSamuel and juniors Dylan Glauer, Gabe Peck. According to Rings, Glauer and Peck could see time at third singles.

Central won its first six matches, all of which were at home. The Tigers defeated Hamilton Township 5-0 on March 26, Bloom-Carroll 5-0 on March 27, Watkins Memorial 3-2 on March 28, Waverly 3-2 on April 29, Westerville Central 5-0 on April 2 and Granville 3-2 on April 3 before losing 5-0 at New Albany on April 4.

Rings hoped those early wins were a good sign entering the league schedule.

"The guys are definitely hungry for another league championship. We hadn't won one in so long before last year and those guys set the bar for this team. Now that we have it, we want to keep it," Rings said.

"Gahanna and North graduated a lot and so did we. It seems like there used to be a clear-cut favorite in the league and I don't think that's the case anymore."

dpurpura@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekDave

Schedules

Below are the coming schedules for the Central baseball, boys lacrosse, girls lacrosse, softball, boys tennis, track & field and boys volleyball teams:

BASEBALL

*April 12 -- Lancaster at Beavers Field

*April 15 -- At Reynoldsburg

*April 17 -- Home vs. Reynoldsburg

BOYS LACROSSE

*April 11 -- At Hilliard Davidson

*April 16 -- Home vs. Gahanna

GIRLS LACROSSE

*April 11 -- Home vs. Hilliard Davidson

*April 15 -- At Gahanna

SOFTBALL

*April 11 -- Home vs. Lancaster

April 12 -- Richfield Revere in Akron Racers Spring Showcase at Firestone Stadium

April 13 -- Sylvania Northview and Willoughby South in Akron Racers Spring Showcase

*April 15 -- At Reynoldsburg

*April 17 -- Home vs. Grove City

BOYS TENNIS

*April 11 -- Home vs. Lancaster

*April 16 -- At Reynoldsburg

April 17 -- Home vs. Delaware

TRACK & FIELD

April 13 -- Joe Lenge Dublin Classic at Dublin Coffman

April 16 -- At Westerville South with Gahanna

April 17 -- Gahanna Relays; at Reynoldsburg with Canal Winchester

BOYS VOLLEYBALL

*April 11 -- Home vs. Pickerington North

*April 16 -- At Upper Arlington

*League contest