Valencia girls cross country's Hailey Kirsch is one of the league's most promising newcomers. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze
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Whether it’s holding her pace in a race or hitting the right notes playing alto saxophone in the school band, Valencia High freshman Hailey Kirsch prides herself on being in rhythm.

Even when she’s on a training run, Kirsch often carries a song in the back of her mind to help her remain focused on important details such as tempo, stride and balance.

“My passion is running, but there is also a connection (to music) with me achieving my goals and just getting better,” Kirsch says. “When I memorize a run or I play the notes on my sax correctly with good rhythm, I feel really satisfactory. I get that same sense of achievement after a really good run where I kept all my paces and I kept my breathing and my turnover and my arms going really well.”

Although she didn’t discover competitive running or the alto sax until junior high school following a family move from the Antelope Valley to Santa Clarita, Kirsch has demonstrated she’s a quick study in both areas, especially when it comes to cross country.

After just one year training with Santa Clarita Storm, Kirsch has already developed into one of the most talented ninth-grade distance runners in the state, looking to help Valencia carry a different tune this year following a sixth-place Foothill League finish last season.

“The timing was right for the Valencia girls to have this transition and Hailey falls right into the mix,” said Valencia coach Leon Maldonado, whose team is seeking its first postseason berth since 2013.

“With the existing team we have wanting to advance and Hailey coming in wanting to learn and wanting to compete, it couldn’t have worked out better.”

Following consecutive meets competing against only freshmen at the Fastback Shootout and Seaside Invitational, where she finished runner-up in both races by less than a second, Kirsch makes her anticipated debut in a league varsity race at 5:40 p.m. today at Central Park.

Valencia didn’t have a female athlete place in the top 10 in any of the three league meets last year, a trend Kirsch is determined to reverse this season.

“Coming in as a freshman, I’ve heard a lot of things about how Saugus is very good and how West Ranch is also a powerhouse, and even Golden Valley is strong, so that just gave me more motivation to do better,” Kirsch says. “For me, it’s just the start of another competition, another thing I want to aspire to be. Something I tell myself is that I want to be running with Kaylee Thompson and that’s my goal right now.”

If anyone can appreciate Kirsch’s position it is Thompson, who began her high school career at Valencia, before transferring to Saugus last season. Thompson placed sixth at the league championship meet as a freshman in 2013, leading the Vikings to a third-place finish.

Since then, Saugus’ Abby Davis and West Ranch’s Shelbi Schauble are the only two freshmen to place in the top 10 at the league final, an achievement Kirsch is motivated to equal in November.

“I want to pick up where Kaylee kind of left off. I just imagine myself filling Kaylee’s shoes that she left when she transferred to Saugus,” Kirsch says. “I want to carry this team all four years. I just think of this team as my family and I want to help my family grow and get better.”

Kirsch’s competitive spirit has been cultivated in a sports family where, at age 14, she is the oldest of four siblings, including 11-year-old sister Breanne, who is a promising young swimmer. Before joining Storm, Kirsch played soccer from fifth to seventh grade.

“We’re definitely both very competitive. We’re never really satisfied with our past times and we always want to get better,” Kirsch said. “I know from racing, there is always going to be someone faster than me, and I work harder and train harder every day, so one day I can beat them. It’s my weekly goal to run faster than I did (the week) before.

“I never like losing or I never like to be sick or whenever I have pains, I always do everything I can to make them go away because I never want to sit out and I never want to let my team down. I always want to be there to help, and I always want to put my best effort forward.”

Kirsch first realized where her dedication and competitive spirit could lead her in the sport when she raced in December at the USATF National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico, less than a year after joining Storm.

Although she finished 110th out of 302 entries in the girls 13-14 division, Kirsch knew her commitment and passion could carry her beyond just running in high school.

“I didn’t start out very well (when I joined Storm), but very quickly I began to move up there and during the first season of cross country, I was already up with the top runners for the girls,” Kirsch says. “It wasn’t until I went to nationals and realized how large cross country is and realized how many people are dedicating their lives to this, that really started my desire to do this throughout high school and I learned that it could take me to college.”

Kirsch and her coaches have a long-term vision for her success at Valencia that will require patience early on and potentially result in some growing pains in order to gain perspective and maturity in the future.

“The number one thing is she is willing to learn,” Maldonado said. “She is new to running at this level, but she trusts in the program and she understands that nothing happens overnight. She realizes that she needs to be patient and let things develop. But she looks forward to running and she loves to compete, and to have an athlete like that is a coach’s dream.”

Kirsch has been surrounded by an ideal group of teammates who have embraced not only her talent, but her work ethic in an effort for the Vikings to reach the postseason for the sixth time in 11 years.

“Since I came in, I’ve been putting my hopes and my ideas out there to the team and I’ve definitely seen a lot of them step it up,” Kirsch says. “Our coaches are very good and we have very optimistic, hard-working captains and they are putting their inspiration throughout the team, along with my leadership and inspiration as well, and a lot of our team members are taking it more seriously.”

Valencia knows it will have to remain healthy, focused and determined throughout the regular season in order to be in contention to qualify for the Division 1 prelims Nov. 3 at the league championship meet.

With a promising talent like Kirsch, who possesses “a lot of upside” according to Saugus coach Rene Paragas, the Vikings are optimistic they can find their rhythm, not only in the present, but also to set a course for an even brighter future.

“I believe so much in my team and all of the girls are like my sisters and I love them so much. They’re so supportive of everything and they work so hard and I see it every day how they want to get better,” Kirsch said. “I feel so proud to be part of this team, and I’m really excited for this season because I definitely think they are going into league with a different mindset, a more competitive mindset and a mindset where they are believing in themselves and the team as well.”

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