Valencia girls cross-country senior runner Hailey Kirsch accomplished something she has never been able to do during her four-year varsity cross-country career, but the road was not always smooth.
After taking fifth place at the CIF-Southern Section Division 1 prelims at Riverside City Cross Country Course on Friday, Nov. 15th, Kirsch advanced to her fourth consecutive Division 1 finals, which were held the following weekend.
Kirsch was the only Vikings runner at the CIF-SS finals along with runners from Saugus, Hart, West Ranch and Trinity Classical Academy. Finishing with a time of 17 minutes and 52.3 seconds, Kirsch took 16th place and qualified for the CIF State Meet as the fifth and final individual girls Division 1 runner.
“I was so beyond excited when I heard the announcer say my name that I had claimed the last spot to state,” Kirsch said. “I cried, my coach cried because it’s been my goal for so long and it’s honestly a dream come true. This has been what I’ve wanted since the beginning of my running career. I’m so excited.”
The road to state got off to a rocky start after the Asics/Cool Breeze Invitational where Kirsch finished in 20th place in 18:00.5. In the following meet, the Foothill League Preview at Central Park, she sprained her ankle as she was rounding a downhill turn and landed wrong.
“I tried to keep going, but running down that hill, I just couldn’t run on it anymore,” Kirsch said.
Kirsch had to get carried off and did not finish the race, but that didn’t stop her from seeing the true goal: state.
“I wasn’t quite worried where I was at because my goal was to peak towards the end of the season and give myself a better chance at qualifying for state,” Kirsch said.
Taking it easy and staying off the ankle for a couple of days, Kirsch bounced back four days later wearing just an ACE Bandage on the ankle for stability at the Ojai Invitational and took sixth place in 19:31.43.
She followed Ojai with a runner-up finish at the Bellarmine-Sacred Heart High School Cross Country Invitational and a seventh-place finish at the 38th Annual Running Center Southern Cal Invitational.
Staying true to her goal, Kirsch was peaking at the right time and was the top girls finisher at the Dos Pueblos meet with a time of 18:20.
“I think it was following the plan that my coach (Matan Mayer) set out,” Kirsch said. “Like I said, our goal was to peak towards the end of the season so as the season progressed I felt I was racking up speed and getting stronger and I saw that with my races, my times and my places,” Kirsch said of the four straight top-seven finishes. “Getting stronger and stronger, I had more faith in my coach after that because I was seeing the results and I thought that I could do well come the postseason.”
Two meets later with the regular season winding down, Kirsch faced a familiar foe in the Foothill League Finals at Central Park. The Vikings runner calmed her nerves and recorded the third-best finish up to that point and finished in 18:21.59 for fifth place behind four Saugus girls runners and qualified for the CIF-SS prelims.
“I was definitely really nervous to go out there again, but I know that course, I’ve been running it all of high school,” Kirsch said. “Even though I did get injured in the first league meet, I know how to run it and have a little bit of faith in myself not to hold back because I was scared. Just having finished it the second time around, it felt really good.”
After Kirsch found out that she qualified for the state meet with her finish at the CIF-SS finals, along with the Saugus girls team who are making their 15th consecutive trip to state, Kirsch was overwhelmed with the care, support and pure joy that the Saugus team along with all the parents, supporters and coaches showed her.
“We just all congratulated each other,” Kirsch said. “I think that they support me, I definitely support them. I was so happy to see how well Hannah (Fredericks) Hailey Rutter and Bella Duarte did. I’ve known those girls for years and I was so happy with how well they did.
“I definitely felt a swell of happiness when not only did the girls on the team congratulated me, but also the parents and the coaches. It really made me feel, it made me feel good knowing that I was supported by everyone on the Saugus side.”
The CIF State Meet will be held at Woodward Park in Fresno on Saturday. The first race begins at 8:30 a.m.