By RON FIRTH
HANOVERTON - With every meet, the United boys 400-meter relay team is climbing the chart among the fastest in school history.
"Three weeks ago, we were fifth best. Right now, we are second," junior Mike Martin said. "We've been making our way up the list every week."
Martin along with senior AJ Bokanovich, sophomore Riley Fillman and freshman Alex Phillips will be running in the Division III state semifinals at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium on Friday morning.
"It's surprised me," Fillman said. "It seems like every time we get competition, we go faster."
Fillman also qualified for state in the long jump and 300-meter hurdles.
The Eagles ran their fastest relay times at the Navarre regional last week at 43.75 seconds in Wednesday's preliminaries and 43.79 seconds in Friday's finals, which took second place.
"When we first started the 4x1 early in the year, we thought this was something that could be pretty good," United boys coach Troy Brunner said. "Of course, it took some convincing to them."
That didn't take long.
"The first meet of the year they ran faster than they did all of last year," Brunner said.
"You could tell at the beginning of the year we could be going somewhere," Martin said. "I knew we were going to be fast."
Bokanovich said he first starting thinking about going to state at the end of last season.
"These guys with Alex coming up and running the first leg, I could see it," he said. "We have potential. It's a group that has worked hard for this."
The Eagles enter the state meet with the fourth-fastest regional time.
"They ran a 75 on Wednesday and came back and ran a 79 on Friday," Brunner said. "AJ had a terrible stumble on Friday, so it would have been faster."
None of the runners would win the 100 dash at state, but they work well as a team.
"When you put their four individual times in there, you wouldn't expect it," Brunner said.
"Everybody pushes everybody and that makes everybody better," Martin said. "We're pretty much the same. That's what makes us a team."
With East Palestine and Crestview each sending relay teams to state three of the previous five seasons (including East Palestine's 2009 state championship squad), the Eagles know they have to be in the 43-second range to get to the podium. Only three teams in the field bettered United's time from last week.
"I think that is different than in the past," Brunner said. "When you go in 14th or 15th, it's hard to compete there when you sit in that position."
That's why the Eagles have high hopes for the weekend.
"We want to drop our time and stay focused and confident," Bokanovich said.
"We want to get our times down and make it to Saturday," Martin said. "Our goal is to get the record."
Only United's 1990 state runner-up team has run faster than the current Eagles.
"It still seems that far away, but when you get to Columbus, anything can happen," Brunner said.
"We're going to go out and run our hardest and give it our all," Fillman said. "Hopefully, we'll place in the top four."
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Fillman is one of the area's top sophomore athletes, qualifying for state in three events.
"It certainly wasn't a surprise," Brunner said. "The surprise was last year. Everything kind of crumbled. One event by one event."
Fillman suffered a knee injury that prevented him from getting out of districts as a freshman. He has been battling through some back irritation recently.
"You just have to fight through it," Fillman said. "I like all of (the events). There will be a lot of good competition."
He comes in with the third-best long jump (21-11 1/2) and the seventh-fastest time in the 300 hurdles (39.10).
Fillman's time in the 300 hurdles is the best in the area since Jordan Johnson set United's school record at 39.06 seconds in 2007.
"His best event at this point is the long jump," Brunner said. "To jump 21-11 as a sophomore isn't too shabby."
He is one of five area boys who will compete in the long jump at the state meet - joining Columbiana senior Britton Steiginga and South Range senior Jake Arsuffi in Divsion III as well as Beaver Local senior Garrett Speelman and East Liverpool junior Zack English in Division II.
All five have went over 21 feet this year.
"Every meet has been a challenge," Brunner said. "When you have the competition in the big meets, you have to have a good day to place."
That has prepared him for the competition throughout the tournament.
"We certainly came out of a strong region," Brunner said. "Our goal in all three has been to place in all three. It certainly can be the case this year."