Darin Hudak is back and he apparently is intent on defending his title at the 61st Good Park Junior Tournament in Akron.
His 2-under 69 in Wednesday's qualifying round was the best of the day and 1 shot better than two equally determined foes who lead a group of 21 boys into the championship flight for ages 13-18 in Thursday and Friday rounds.
Olivia Swain, a two-time winner, shot a 2-over (37-36) — 2 shots better than two others — to pace 12 girls in the championship flight.
All the contenders were scheduled to teeoff at 7 a.m. Thursday because of a forecast that includes an increasing likelihood of storms as the day goes on.
Hudak's round of 69 (34-35) was at least 4 shots better than any of his three rounds in last year's winning effort. He carded three birdies, and his only bogey was on No. 18.
"The course was playing a little different last year because it's not as hard and firm," Hudak said. "But I think experience matters a lot. Last year it was really tough. This year it's a little more gettable."
Although the goal is a repeat, Hudak admitted the competition makes that challenging.
"There's a lot of good players out there," he said. "And today doesn't really mean anything; it just gets you into your flight. I've just got to stick with my game plan."
There are 111 players in the field — 81 boys and 27 girls in ages 13-18 — who will be divided into flights for the next two rounds. There are also three boys competing in ages 11-12.
Kyle Buzaki of Stow, who will be a freshman at Walsh University, and Gavin Tallal, 17, of Fairlawn, both shot 1-under 70s. They were the only golfers under par besides Hudak.
Buzaki's 70 (36-34) included three birdies and two bogeys.
"My putting was pretty good and my driving was pretty accurate," Buzaki said. "Hopefully I can keep the momentum going the next two days."
Tallal, a senior at University School in Hunting Valley, shot 36-34 with an eagle on the par-4 No. 12 and three birdies. He played in the tourney last year but this will be his first time playing for the championship.
"This is my best round I've ever shot actually," Tallal said. "My chipping was really nice, because I chipped on No. 12 for an eagle and I was just leaving tap-ins on some holes."
Four players had 73s, including Max Crookston, a junior at Stow, Caden Scarbrough, a junior at CVCA, Andrew Yard of Hudson and Jacob Ryan of Akron.
Ryan, a freshman at Archbishop Hoban, tied for sixth last year as a 13-year-old.
"I've played here a lot and I know how some of these holes are," he said. "I know how to drive the golf ball and give myself good looks. Today it was just about making putts."
Swain, who will be a senior at Lake High this fall, won the girls division in 2016 and 2017 before finishing sixth last year.
"Last year was rough," she said. "I came to win the third one last year and I didn't so I'm back trying again."
Her round Wednesday included four birdies.
Sophia Canale, a Copley High graduate who will be a freshman at Glenville State in West Virginia, shot 75 as did Taylor Burch, a junior at Cardinal Newman High in Columbia, S.C.
Defending girls champion Alea Griffith, a senior at Barberton, was fourth with a 77.
Canale (38-37) said she usually plays Good Park "on the weekends with my dad" but said this is her first time in the tournament.
"I knew where to hit everything since I've played it before and to play safe," Canale said. "Just like where to avoid the trees on most holes."
Burch, who said she has family in Akron, is playing Good Park for the first time.
"I like it, it's nice," Burch said. "The trees make it a little difficult for me but other than that, it's pretty simple."
Braden Herstich, 12, lost the 11-12 age group in a playoff last year but outpaced his competition Wednesday with a 74 (37-37), despite a triple bogey on No. 18.