BY DENNIS CHASE
Dave Buck took his spot on the edge of the track.
“Haley, to your mark,” he announced.
With his arms raised, his starting pistol aimed skyward, Buck stared straight ahead at a lone starting block in lane four, a pink rose draped over it.
And with that, Buck fired his pistol to start the 400-meter race and the 2011 track season.
Except, there were no competitors in the 400.
This was Haley Baldinger’s race.
Baldinger, a Buckley senior and two-time state medalist in the 400, died tragically in a car accident late last week returning from spring break in South Carolina.
To honor her, Buckley officials juggled the events, moving up the 400 so it would open Thursday’s meet. The four participating schools — Manton, Grand Traverse Academy, McBain Northern Michigan Christian and Buckley — all agreed to pull their runners from the race.
“We want to officially begin our season by giving the first lap to Haley Baldinger,” Buckley athletic director Rene LaFreniere said.
The clock was set at 59 seconds, signifying Baldinger’s school record in the event at 59.5.
When Buck fired his pistol, the clock started running. Spectators, gathered by the starting line on a bright, crisp spring afternoon, stood silent. Several openly wept.
As the seconds ticked away, Buckley coach Ken Wicker started to walk down the track, clapping as if to encourage his star runner to the finish line.
Others followed suit.
“That was emotional, more emotional than you think,” Wicker admitted.
Wicker had known the 17-year-old Baldinger most of her life. He coached her in track the last three years.
When Todd Kulawiak, the school principal, learned of the accident, he didn’t call Wicker. He drove to his house.
“Haley was like a daughter to him,” Kulawiak said. “This was hard for him (to accept).”
It’s hard for many in this small community.
“She was just a great kid — and I’m never going to see her again,” Wicker said.
Wicker huddled with three members of Buckley’s 3200-meter relay team — Baldinger would’ve been the fourth — when the gun went off to start the 400. They hugged. They cried.
Several sported T-shirts that read 59.5 in recognition of Baldinger’s school record. Some had doctored their T-shirts, adding Baldinger’s personal best times in her other events — a 12.9 in the 100, a 27.8 in the 200.
And the 3200 relay? 10:23.7.
Haley Morairty, Kendra Duby, Bailee Kuhn and Baldinger earned a medal in the 3200 relay at last June’s Division 4 state meet by placing eighth. With all four returning, hopes were high.
In Thursday’s 3200 relay, Morairty gave Buckley the lead. Duby maintained it. Kuhn extended it. Normally, this is where Baldinger would finish it.
But there was no final baton exchange on this day. When Kuhn wrapped up her two laps, she jogged off the track and waited for the other runners to pass. The race went on. Before it was over, though, Kuhn joined her teammates on the track and they placed the baton down on the ground — in lane four. It was the same baton the girls had used at the state meet — and it will not be used again. The girls plan to give it to Baldinger’s family.
Turns out, Baldinger was never far from their thoughts during that relay race.
“I know she would have wanted us to go out there and do our best,” Morairty said. “But I felt we needed to do better than our best because I know she was watching.”
Baldinger was an all-conference basketball player, leading her team to its first district title since 1984. But it was on the track where she starred. She was second in the state in the 400 as a sophomore, fourth as a junior.
“There was an article in the paper (Thursday) that talked about (her chances of) winning the state championship,” Wicker said. “I don’t know if people really know how true that was. We had talked about that possibility three weeks ago. The girl from Fowler (Lindsey Hufnagel) is a phenomenal runner, a two-time state champion. But one of the last things I told Haley was, ‘I think you can beat her. You’ll have to run a perfect race, but I think it could happen.’”
That race for perfection would have started Thursday.
“You can see how well thought of Haley was in our community,” Wicker said. “The turnout today is tremendous. That’s the thing. In small communities, everybody knows everybody. And to lose someone so cherished is a tough thing.
“It’s a double whammy when it’s someone so close to you.”
Baldinger’s younger sister, Hannah, and Haley’s best friend, Paige Gokey, were injured in the crash. Both were flown back Wednesday. Hannah Baldinger is currently hospitalized in Grand Rapids, while Gokey is at Munson Medical in Traverse City.
Kulawiak and teacher Dana Monks decorated Gokey’s hospital room with cards, flowers and a get-well banner Wednesday before she was admitted.
“It looked like a Buckley room,” Kulawiak said.
On Thursday morning, Kulawiak, teacher Carrie Schichtel and pastor John Vermilya visited Hannah in Grand Rapids, taking along cards, a banner and a special request — a pair of pink pajamas with a peace and love symbol.
“We were told if we could find (pajamas) with a peace sign, that would be Hannah,” Kulawiak said. “She put it on right before we left.”
Kulawiak said Gokey and Hannah Baldinger were in good spirits.
“That (trip to Grand Rapids) was very therapeutic,” he said. “She (Hannah) was smiling, talking. It was nice to see her.”
Kulawiak said he’s been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from not only the “Buckley family but the extended Buckley family.”
Thursday’s track meet was probably therapeutic, too, as many here still try to cope with the sudden loss of a student whose future seemed filled with promise.
“I know how I’m grieving,” Kulawiak said. “I couldn’t imagine how a parent feels.”
Haley Baldinger’s funeral will be held at 1 p.m. Monday in the school gymnasium. There will be a viewing from 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday in the gym.