BY DENNIS CHASE
TRAVERSE CITY — Haley Baldinger was just hitting her stride.
The 17-year-old senior had led Buckley to its first girls basketball district championship since 1984, followed by a near upset of then unbeaten Manistee Catholic in the regional.
Track would be starting less than a month later and Baldinger, a two-time state medalist, had her sights set on a state title in the 400 meters — an event she already had placed second and fourth in previously.
But she would never get the opportunity.
Baldinger died in a car accident April 1 returning from spring break in South Carolina. Her two passengers, her sister Hannah, and best friend, Paige Gokey, were injured.
The tragedy is the Record-Eagle's No. 5 story of 2011.
The death of the popular teen stunned the Buckley community.
"She had such an impact on everybody," school principal Todd Kulawiak said. "Not only was she a tremendous athlete, but she was a great, great kid.
"I have five kids — four boys and a daughter. I think, 'Who would you want your daughter to emulate, to look up after? She's that kid. For me, and I'm sure the Buckley community family, there's not too many days that go by that you still don't think of her. It's hard. It's still hard."
The track program honored Baldinger during its first home meet a week after the accident. Officials juggled the lineup, moving the 400 to the first event. The four participating schools all agreed to scratch their runners from the race in honor of Baldinger.
A single rose was draped over a starting block in lane four. The clock was set at 59 seconds in honor of Baldinger's school record in the 400. It ticked away after Dave Buck fired his gun to start the race.
"We want to officially begin our season by giving the first lap to Haley Baldinger," Buckley athletic director Rene LaFreniere said.
The loss hit many hard, especially Buckley track coach Ken Wicker, who knew Baldinger most of her life.
"She was just a great kid — and I'm never going to see her again," Wicker said in April.
Although the death occurred in the spring, Baldinger's memory lives on. The basketball team wears pink this winter as a remembrance.
Hannah Baldinger and Gokey recovered from their injuries. Gokey played volleyball in the fall and is on the basketball team, although she's currently sidelined with a sprained ankle.
Baldinger's mother is president of the athletic boosters.
"As a parent, I couldn't imagine how something like that affects you," Kulawiak said.