In one sense, Pickerington Central boys cross country runner Chase Balko did exactly what he did not want to do during the Division I state meet Nov. 2 at National Trail Raceway.

The junior started about as fast as he hoped but then was caught in a crowd and pushed back on the way to a 139th-place finish (17 minutes, .7 seconds) in the 186-runner field.

But Balko still called the experience "unbelievable" and hopes he can build on it for both his track and field season next spring as well as his senior year of cross country.

"It's amazing. It's unbelievable just making it here," said Balko, a first-time qualifier. "It was OK. It was a learning experience. I'd have liked to have placed a little bit better and had a better time, but I learned. The first 400 (meters), I got out pretty good, but then I got boxed in and pushed back a little bit. There was a collision in front of me I got hooked up with.

"(Coaches and teammates) all told me I had to get out quick or I'd be in a bad spot and that's exactly how it was."

Central was represented at state for the fifth consecutive year.

"We had a good plan overall going in," coach Andy Fischer said. "We knew the race he ran (at regional Oct. 26 at Pickerington North, when he finished 17th in 16:25.1) was kind of the same mindset; he didn't have to go and try to do anything overly special. He's been here as a spectator. He's been here for the (OHSAA Early Season Invitational, held every August). This is his first time (as a state competitor) and it was awesome.

"He was competitive. He never looked like he faded and that's what we asked for. He knows how it is now. He's really stepped up from last track season to now and I look for him to continue to grow."

All of Central's top seven runners to end the season are eligible to return, including juniors Jacob Brown and Brycen Rogers, sophomores Gavin Kelly, Owen Sauer and Jailen Willis and freshman Andrew Scrape.

All of the girls team's top seven also are eligible to return, including two-time regional qualifier Grace Osborn.

Osborn, a junior, finished 34th at regional to fall 14 spots shy of her first state berth.

Other expected returnees include junior Grace Vega, sophomores Emily Green, Mallory Schmidt and Brenna Todd and freshmen Amber Carter, Ashley Carter and Talia Mauro.

"They are so close. They feed off each other," girls coach Jacob Schimberg said. "Looking at the big picture, I couldn't be happier with how our team came together and me stepping in as a new coach and being accepted. We built trust and communication. They've been amazing to be with all season."